Safety and first aid

After a bushfire – hazards on your property

Houses, sheds and other buildings or structures that are burnt in a bushfire can leave potential health hazards in the remaining rubble and ash. Before going back to your property to clean-up or retrieve personal items, be aware of the potential risks.

Hazardous material that may be present after a fire can include:

  • asbestos
  • ash from burnt treated timbers, such as copper chrome arsenate (CCA) timber
  • medicines
  • garden or farm chemicals
  • other general chemicals, such as cleaning products or pool chlorine
  • metals and other residues from burnt household appliances
  • ash and dust.

You should be aware that demolition of buildings or structures may require a permit from your local government authority.

Got 

Before going back to your property

For safety reasons, only adults should help clean-up after a bushfire.

  • Do not enter your property until you have been told that it is safe by emergency services, Western Power or Horizon Power, or your local council.
  • Buildings and other structures may be unstable to enter or walk on. Get advice from your local council building section to make sure it is safe before you enter.
  • Be aware that hot, smouldering coals and other potentially hazardous materials may be hidden under the rubble.
  • If you think buildings on your property may contain asbestos cement sheeting, take extra care – see the section 'Asbestos – clean-up and disposal' on this page.

Looking after your health

If you are cleaning up during hot weather, be aware of the risks of heat stress and make sure you have:

  • bottled drinking water
  • food – perishable food should be kept cold in an esky or cooler bag
  • sunscreen
  • a hat.

It's also important to be aware of other health hazards from bushfires such as smoke exposure.

For health advice on exposure to bushfire smoke or contact with material left after a bushfire:

Protective clothing
  • Wear strong enclosed shoes or boots and heavy duty work gloves to protect you from broken glass, standing on sharp objects or getting burnt by smouldering coals.
  • Wear protective overalls (with long sleeves and trousers). If convenient, wear disposable coveralls and dispose of them with other waste after use.
  • Any non-disposable clothing (including shoes) should be washed or wet cleaned before reuse.
  • If the property or site contains asbestos, disposable overalls should be placed in a sealed bag after use and disposed of as asbestos waste.

What about wearing a face mask?

  • Ordinary paper dust masks, handkerchiefs or bandannas do not filter out fine ash or dusts or any asbestos fibres that may remain. They are generally not very useful in protecting your lungs.
  • Special face masks (called ‘P1’ or ‘P2’) should be worn. They are available at most hardware stores. ‘P2’ masks filter out a slightly higher proportion of fine particles than ‘P1’ and are the preferred choice.
  • Wearing a face mask can make it harder for you to breathe normally. If you have a heart or lung condition, talk to your doctor before using one.
  • You should note that these types of masks are much less effective if there is a poor seal around the face and mouth. Men with facial hair, especially beards, can have trouble getting a good seal.

Cleaning up and handling waste

Make sure you wear adequate protective clothing, gloves and shoes before handling any debris, ash or other waste.

  • Any items that could be flammable or toxic, such as gas bottles, petrol, drums/bottles of chemical or poison, should be left where they are or separated from other debris. Get advice from local fire safety officers on safely disposing of these items.
  • Wetting down ash and debris with water will help to limit airborne dust before you start cleaning up. Do not use high pressure water sprays as these can stir up ash and dust.
  • Don’t spread ash around your property, particularly if asbestos material or CCA-treated timber was burnt.
  • Building rubble should not be buried. Hazardous materials such as asbestos or chemicals may contaminate surrounding land, harming the environment and community.
Asbestos – clean-up and disposal

Buildings built before 1988 may contain asbestos cement (sometimes called ‘AC’ or ‘ACM’) sheeting in walls, roofs, floor underlays, eaves, chimney flues or asbestos in vinyl floor tiles and backing to sheet linoleum. These materials are generally not a health risk unless they are cut, broken, drilled or crushed, which releases asbestos fibres into the air.

During a bushfire, the amount of asbestos fibres released into the air is likely to be low. After a bushfire, asbestos fibres can be disturbed by clean-up work.

If you suspect that your property could be heavily contaminated, for example asbestos in the soil, do not start clean-up until you have been told it is safe.

How to remove small amounts of asbestos

Small unburned quantities (a few sheets or fragments) of broken or damaged asbestos cement material or debris should be:

  • wet down with a hose or bucket (not a pressure cleaner)
  • carefully removed and wrapped securely in heavy duty plastic sheeting or bags
  • wrapped in bundles and clearly labelled with the words ‘CAUTION ASBESTOS’
  • taken to a landfill site approved to accept asbestos.

Check with your local government for landfill sites.

Large amounts of asbestos

If large quantities of asbestos cement materials are present on soil or attached to buildings or structures, it is recommended you hire a licensed asbestos removalist. These can be found in the Yellow Pages under ‘A’ for Asbestos or by contacting WorkSafe on (08) 6251 2200 or 1300 307 877.

If you suspect that your property could be heavily contaminated, for example asbestos in the soil, do not start clean-up until you have been told it is safe.

Help with asbestos clean-up

For advice about asbestos contamination and safe clean-up practices, contact:

Ash from CCA-treated wood – clean-up and disposal

CCA-treated wood, (copper chrome arsenate treated wood), is commonly used in structures such as pergolas, decking, fencing and landscaping. After a fire, the ash from this wood contains up to 10 per cent (by weight) arsenic, copper and chromium.

Swallowing only a few grams of this can be harmful. Children, pets and other animals must be kept away from these ash areas until clean-up is completed.

  • Ash should be double-bagged, sealed and taken directly to your local landfill.
  • Damaged timber can also be taken to landfill.

Read more about how to stay safe around copper chrome arsenate treated wood.

For advice on disposal, contact Environmental Health Services at your local government (external site).

On-site wastewater system damage

On-site wastewater systems can be easily damaged during a bushfire. This includes septic tanks (primary treatment systems), secondary treatment systems (STS), aerated wastewater treatment systems (AWTS), and their land application systems, for example plastic leach drains, sprinklers and below ground drippers and connection pipes.

Plastic and fibreglass on-site wastewater systems, or systems made with plastic components, are more susceptible to damage than concrete tanks particularly if installed above ground. This includes shallow PVC pipes, plastic tanks and sumps, and plastic irrigation pipework which may be installed above or below ground. Pumps and other equipment with electrical components may also be damaged.

If your system is damaged and presents an immediate safety risk, action should be taken as soon as practicable to make it safe. For example, if the lid is missing, place a temporary cover or fencing around the system to prevent access to the area. It is recommended that damaged on-site wastewater systems are not used until repaired or replaced.

Avoid driving or walking near a fire-affected system until it is assessed by a licensed plumber or service technician familiar with on-site wastewater systems.

Contact with effluent or untreated wastewater from damaged on-site wastewater systems can cause illness and should be avoided at all times.

Actions

Due to the risks associated with using systems after a bushfire, the following actions are recommended:

  • If the on-site systems are damaged, make arrangements to repair the system as soon as possible to prevent sewage from backing up into the house.
  • Avoid driving or walking near underground pipes, tanks and tank covers and their land application systems, which may have been weakened or damaged.
  • Reduce water use as much as possible until the system is inspected and repaired by:
    • reducing the frequency of toilet flushing for liquid waste
    • taking shorter showers or shower elsewhere
    • limiting laundry and dishwashing as much as possible. If possible avoid using automatic clothes washers and dishwashers.
  • If the power has not been restored, the septic tank can be used as a temporary holding tank and pumped out periodically, provided the tank is not damaged. You may need to disconnect the pump (if present) and block the outlet to the land application area. If the tank is significantly damaged and can’t be used as a temporary holding tank, do not use the system until it is repaired or replaced.
  • Once power is restored, ponding may occur near the wastewater system and these areas should be avoided. Contact a licenced plumber or authorised service technician to reassess the system.
  • Replace shallow PVC pipes if they have melted as they may cause blockages.
  • Repair or replace damaged electrical components and pumps as soon as possible.

For further advice, please contact Environmental Health Directorate on 9222 2000 or email ehinfo@health.wa.gov.au

Rainwater tank contamination

Water in rainwater tanks on your property can be contaminated from a bushfire, either indirectly by ash, smoke, debris or directly by fire and firefighting activities.

Read more about what to do to make sure the water quality in your rainwater tank is safe to drink after a bushfire.

Swimming pool contamination

After a bushfire, a swimming pool may contain debris including ash. This may affect the chemical balance of the water.

Swimming pools should either be emptied or kept chlorinated to prevent the water quality from deteriorating.

Contaminated swimming pools can be:

  • a source of odours and bacteria
  • a breeding place for mosquitoes
  • a health risk to people who use them.

Read more about maintaining water quality for swimming pools and spas.

Disposal of unsafe food

When bushfires cause the power to go out, it generally means the food in a fridge or freezer will go off.

Read the power is off – is your food? for information on how to safely dispose of food.

Dead animal control

Following a bushfire, many animals, particularly farm animals may not survive.

It is important to promptly dispose of these animal carcasses to prevent fly breeding, reduce odours, and protect surviving animals from disease.

Landholders should search their property for dead animals as soon as possible after a disaster, provided it is safe to do so.

In some cases, carcasses may have commercial value, so consider sending them to a rendering plant if possible.

If rendering is impractical, dispose of the dead animals on the premises.

How to dispose of dead animals

  • Cover a carcass with crude oil or kerosene to keep away dogs, scavenging birds and vermin.
  • Well-fed pigs are the only animal carcasses that will burn satisfactorily. Old railway sleepers can be used as fuel. Burning of other carcasses is not recommended.
  • Bury other carcasses. Use earth moving equipment if it is available.
  • Choose a site where subsurface drainage will not reach water supplies.
  • Bury the carcass at least 90cm to 120cm deep, so predatory animals won't be able to reach them.
  • If quicklime (Builder’s Lime) is available, cover the carcasses with it before backfilling. Quicklime speeds up the decomposition process.

Contact your local government (external site) animal control officer for further guidelines.

More information

Contact Environmental Health Services at your local government (external site).


Last reviewed: 26-02-2021
Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

Questions? Ask your local government environmental health services