The Intersection of Wildfires and Asbestos Dangers

Image with the text "Wildfires & Asbestos: Increasing Dangers" over an image of a wildfire that has a blue overlay.

In August 2023, a fire started in a field outside of Lahaina, Hawaii. Within 20 minutes, the fire had jumped a four-lane road and started burning nearby homes. Residents fled, with some jumping into the ocean to save themselves.

As wildfires become more frequent and destructive, the dangers present in the aftermath also increase. Those dangers include asbestos from damaged building materials used in the construction of homes and other buildings.

By the time the Lahaina fire was out, 97 people had died, and more than 2,000 structures had burned. Some of these buildings may have contained asbestos products that released the mineral into the atmosphere.

The Lahaina fire became the deadliest in the United States, passing California’s 2018 Camp fire. People exposed to asbestos because of these fires may now be at risk of developing mesothelioma in the future.

Increase in Wildfires Puts More People at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

As wildfires become more frequent, more communities face a greater risk of asbestos exposure. Any level of asbestos exposure can be dangerous if the mineral is inhaled or ingested. It can lead to asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers.

Buildings constructed before the 1980s often had asbestos. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 20% of buildings in the United States contained asbestos. Undisturbed, asbestos building materials may not pose an exposure risk, but fires can release the mineral into the atmosphere.

The Real Financial Cost of Wildfires

The total cost of a fire goes beyond fighting it. Costs also include rehabilitation and other indirect costs. The NIFC reports more than $2.9 billion in suppression costs alone during the 2017 fire season. For that same year, the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) notes the total costs topped $24 billion.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) started tracking wildfire data in 1983. Their statistics show the 10 most destructive fires have all occurred in the past 20 years, an indication of how dangerous the situation has become.

Wildfires have caused significant damage to people’s property and racked up massive costs to fight them. The NIFC data shows the cost to fight fires between 2003 and 2012 averaged $1,307,081,300. Between 2013 and 2022, the average hit $2,523,259,200.

According to data for 2005 – 2022, wildfires burned more than 99,500 homes, businesses and other structures. Many of these homes likely contained asbestos products that released fibers into the air, which people in the community may have inhaled.

Structures Burned by Wildfires

A chart showing the number of structures burned during wildfires per year.

Beyond the cost to fight the fires, the total cost spent after a fire includes rehabilitation and other indirect costs. The NIFC reports more than $2.9 billion in suppression costs during the 2017 fire season. For that same year, the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) notes the total costs topped $24 billion.

The number of fires and their severity fluctuates from year to year. However, overall data shows a growing problem. Larger and more destructive fires are becoming more frequent.

In one study, researchers analyzed data from 1984 to 2018. They found that the Western and Eastern regions of the U.S. saw twice as many fires after 2005 as before 1999. The Great Plains had four times as many fires.

Chart showing the number of wildfires per year and the acres burned by year.Three facts weigh heavily on the situation. First, since the 1970s, the wildfire season has lengthened from five to seven months. Second, there was a decades-long widespread use of asbestos in buildings. Third, natural asbestos deposits and mines create another potential hazard.

Environmental Asbestos Creates More Hazards

Asbestos mines and natural deposits can also pose risks during wildfires. During the mining process, asbestos present in the deposit may contaminate other minerals and the area around the mine. Wildfires can spread asbestos from natural deposits and mining operations.

Libby, Montana, is an example. Vermiculite was mined from the area mines. That vermiculite was near an asbestos deposit, leading to the asbestos contaminating the acreage surrounding the mine. This makes any fires in the area potential sources of asbestos exposure.

2023 Libby Superfund Site Fire

In the summer of 2023, a fire erupted in a part of the Libby Superfund cleanup site. Officials acted quickly to get the fire contained. The ground and trees around the site had accumulated asbestos fibers from 70 years of mining.

In an area weary from asbestos exposure dangers, concern grew that the Libby fire could increase exposure risk. While asbestos could have become airborne, the quick action from specially trained firefighters likely limited how much was released into the air. Firefighters contained the fire in a matter of days after it burned two acres.

The United States has 876 naturally occurring asbestos deposits. Of those, 142 were once active mines. A long, uncontrolled burn near one of these mines increases asbestos exposure risks. That risk extends beyond the immediate area.

Asbestos Mine Locations and Fires Greater Than 100,000 Acres That Occurred From January 1st, 2016 to December 31st, 2020

Map showing the locations of asbestos mines and wildfires

While asbestos resists heat well, burning asbestos-containing materials make them brittle or friable (crumbly). Asbestos becomes very dangerous when materials become friable. Regardless, many companies used asbestos because of its durability and resistance to heat and fire. Research shows that an average of 92% of the asbestos stays behind in the ash, but the rest could become airborne. Those researchers also note asbestos fibers can remain airborne for hours or days.

Sometimes, the smoke and ash from a wildfire can travel hundreds or thousands of miles away. If those particles contain asbestos, people far from the site can be affected. Airborne asbestos can also settle and become airborne again with a gust of wind.

Tips to Protect Yourself From Asbestos Exposure During Wildfires

Precaution and preparation are critical in the face of increased fire risks. Wildfires and burning structures caused by them can release many toxins. This danger has led emergency officials to take steps to protect the public.

If you live in an area where wildfires have become more common, you can take steps to protect yourself and your family from asbestos exposure.

Preparing for Wildfire Season

You can take specific actions before wildfire season starts to help you prepare for it. Remember, more areas are becoming prone to wildfires.

Use these tips to prepare:

  • Have your home inspected. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, consider having an asbestos professional inspect your home for asbestos. If your home does have asbestos, consider hiring an abatement professional to remove it.
  • Get a device to receive emergency info. Make sure you have ways to receive emergency messages. A cell phone is always a good idea, but in a large-scale disaster, cellular signals can be disrupted. Use a battery-powered radio as a backup to get additional directions after you evacuate.
  • Make an evacuation plan. Sometimes, seconds matter when it comes to getting out of the way of a wildfire. Make sure you and your family know where to go and how to get there. If you have pets, make sure you have a plan for how to get them out safely, too.
  • Prepare emergency supplies. You should have three days of supplies you can carry with you. Experts recommend having one month of any medicines you might need. Keep a hard copy of your personal and financial records ready to go. If you’re undergoing medical treatment, have a copy of your medical records, too.

Tips for During a Wildfire

Wildfires can flare up quickly and spread fast. Wildfires spread at an average speed of 14.27 miles per hour. You need to act fast.

If you receive an evacuation order:

  • Remain calm. Panicking can slow you down and open you up to mistakes.
  • Know your surroundings. Keep an eye on the weather. A change in the wind can mean the fire will change directions. Make sure you know a few routes to get out of the area.
  • Be ready to evacuate. Fast. Remember, time matters. You may not have time to gather your belongings before you must evacuate. Take your emergency kit and leave.
  • Follow directions. Emergency personnel have training and plans to help evacuate an area quickly. Listen to their directions and follow them.

If you cannot evacuate safely:

  • Move furniture away from windows. If the fire approaches your house, things next to windows can heat up and catch fire. Keeping furniture away can help.
  • Remove curtains. Curtains, like furniture, can burn when they become too hot. Take them down to prevent this from happening.
  • Fill sinks and bathtubs. In an extended emergency, you can drink this water.
  • Close all doors. If the house starts to burn, this can help slow the spread. Make sure to close all your doors, but do not lock them in case you need to leave the room quickly.
  • Gather your family. You and your family members should gather together so that each of you knows where the others are at all times. Stay away from outside walls.

Navigating Wildfire Aftermath

It may be several days or weeks before you can get back to your home after an evacuation. Officials do this to keep you and your family safe. Practicing precautions after a fire can keep you healthy in the long run.

Follow these tips:

  • Only go into a burn area when told it’s safe. A fire can release many different toxic materials, including asbestos. If you go into a burn area before being told it’s safe, you may come into contact with these materials. Emergency services will test to make sure the air and ground are safe.
  • Be careful when cleaning up. Even after a burn area is cleared by emergency services, proceed with caution. A burnt building can hold a lot of toxins, including asbestos. Keep this in mind if you choose to recover personal items from the fire. Remember, experts may consider asbestos safe when it’s undisturbed or encapsulated. Once the asbestos-containing materials burn, the asbestos may be very dangerous. Qualified asbestos professionals should clear any contaminated debris.

Raising Awareness and Advocacy

On December 30, 2021, a fire ignited northwest of Denver, Colorado. It grew quickly, driven by heavy winds. Dubbed the Marshall fire, the blaze destroyed more than 1,000 residential structures and damaged 149 more. Seven commercial buildings burned completely, and 30 suffered damage.

State officials urged residents to stay away from the burn area until after teams completed testing. The testing was necessary because asbestos is prevalent in older buildings. In the case of the Marshall fire, testing showed no signs of asbestos.

At the Lahaina fire, officials took a cautious approach to cleanup as well. Of the 2,000 structures burned, many were built before 1970. The age of the buildings suggested builders had used asbestos during construction.

Officials did not start letting residents back into the burn area for more than a month after the blaze.

Wildfires pose many risks, and building fires have their own unique risks. You need to understand those risks and how to keep yourself safe before, during and after a fire.

Wildfire intensity and frequency will put more buildings at risk. Asbestos mines will also remain a problem. These two facts together mean fires will cause asbestos dangers until remediation and containment take place. Advocacy groups continue to fight against these dangers by raising awareness of the risks asbestos exposure and pushing for a national asbestos ban.