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Healing from the Ashes: Community Response to Wildfire Leila Darwish reports on how fire survivors are working with fungi and microbes to clean soil and protect watersheds from post-wildfire contamination

As climate change intensifies, decades of fire suppression and mismanagement of forests and wildlands continue to create the perfect storm for record-breaking and unprecedented wildfire seasons around the world. When fires burn through communities, they leave behind toxic ash and debris, creating a secondary disaster of widespread contamination that can impact the health of people, wildlife, and the environment. Post-fire debris can include everything from the materials we build our homes from: batteries, paints, flammable liquids, chemicals, pesticides, asbestos siding, pipe insulation, cars, appliances, electronics and more. The debris and ash may contain high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, barium, aluminium, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, antimony, zinc and copper. It can also contain Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and persistent organic pollutants like benzene and dioxin. If the toxic debris and ash are not removed in time by government clean-up efforts prior to the arrival of rain and storms, they can contaminate soil and threaten sensitive aquatic ecosystems via runoff and landslides.

In recent years, fire survivors and impacted communities in California have mobilized efforts to mitigate the threat from toxic ash and debris on their lands and waters using bioremediation tools and techniques. Bioremediation is the science and art of working with living systems to detoxify and regenerate contaminated environments. Through the use of plants (phytoremediation), bacteria (microbial remediation) and fungi (mycoremediation), heavy metals and chemicals can either be bound, extracted or broken down. As we gear up for yet another fire season in western North America, it is important to learn from these efforts to deepen our understanding of what ecological solutions are available to address post-fire contamination. These projects are inspired by Nature, guided by science, and driven by fire issue 108  summer 2021

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