Why Disaster Cleanup Process is a Major Strategic Operation?

The frequency of occurrence of natural disasters and man-made states of devastation are increasing exponentially.  The actual natural disaster is a major challenge for all those in the immediate vicinity, but likewise, the cleanup operations are also strategic nightmares that need to be acted upon in a timely manner so as to minimize further hazards such as polluted waterways, breeding zones for disease and broken and damaged materials.

Following the severe forest fires in the state of California (October, 2017), the burnt materials, smoke laden debris has been a major cleanup operation. Local laws of California forbid the removal of debris from these zones. This is a measure to protect the general public from harm from unidentifiable risk factors, as well as protecting the natural environment. The cleanup operations also target recycling as much of the debris as possible rather than adding the debris directly to the bulging landfills.


As a result of the multiple fire disasters, eleven thousand building structures were incinerated across four counties in California. The extent of the cleanup operations stretched across 250 square miles in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. A residential area yielded 200-250 tons of materials. To date, February 2018, nearly 80% of the cleanup operation has been completed. This amounts to the removal of almost 1.5 million tons of debris.

The nature of the debris is extremely variable ranging from non-reactive, non-sensitive to extremely harmful, toxic, hazardous materials. Domestic and commercial buildings utilize gas for utilities so there are propane gas bottles, motor fuel and oil, chemical products such as pesticides and residual paints, adhesives, glues and varnishes. These materials needed to be removed by toxic materials handling agencies. Metals and rebar materials are identified and sorted by the excavators. Remaining debris is transported to the landfills.

The nature of the debris is highly variable and each category of materials will have a different final destination. Usable metal are directed to metal scrap yards while concrete rubble has a number of options. It may be crushed and used in the underlay of asphalt  roads, or pulverized and recycled in a new blended cement mix.

natural disaster debris
In natural disasters, nature of the debris is extremely variable

Other debris, especially woody substances, have a high potential for releasing dust and particulate  into the atmosphere and eventually being a threat to human health. These materials need to be wetted down and wrapped in a sheeting material before being transported to landfill sites.

Landfills are managed and control in terms of type of debris they accept, amounts, number of truck loads per day, etc, as the materials need to be compacted and compressed and covered. However, because the fire zones are considered to be high public health risks waivers have been obtained to process the excessive number of truck loads.

Hazardous materials of course, must all be processed in a prescribed manner and recording of debris delivery from disaster zones is also heavily monitored. This means the regular landfill zones are extremely active and working at maximum capacity.

This particular case study of an emergency disaster zone is very manageable in that the materials tend to be relatively homogenous, entire areas that were devastated are void of any human occupation. These factors reduce logistic challenges especially in terms of maneuverability. However, it does mean that landfills have increased loading in a shorter amount of time and so will reduce the life expectancy of some of these landfills.

Claire Cosgrove

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