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OSHA Provides Support in Battle Against Southern California Wildfires

OSHA and FEMA worked together to protect worker safety and health during the disaster.

OSHA and FEMA worked together to protect worker safety and health during the disaster.

OSHA collected bulk samples of ash and personal air samples where FEMA personnel were working.

OSHA collected bulk samples of ash and personal air samples where FEMA personnel were working.

Twelve major wildland fires ignited in Southern California beginning October 21, 2003. According to press and governmental reports, the fires ignited during extreme fire hazard conditions associated with four years of drought, strong easterly Santa Ana winds, high temperatures, low humidity and dry vegetation. The fires destroyed forest wildlands, residential and commercial structures, resulted in fatalities and injuries, forced evacuations and sheltering of residents, and disrupted highway, rail and air traffic, telephone service and electrical power. The fires spread rapidly and quickly overwhelmed local resources. Thousands of fire fighters and other State and Federal personnel were dispatched to the region to assist.

On October 27, 2003, President Bush declared all five counties disaster areas. To assist, Federal OSHA Region 9 and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) coordinated their efforts to address worker safety and health issues both during and after the fire.

This disaster was one of the first high magnitude events following regional Incident Command System (ICS) training and development of an ICS-based concept for Region 9 emergency response. The training proved critical to OSHA's understanding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) operational structure and how to best provide OSHA resources to the disaster. Region 9 assembled a support cell at the Federal OSHA San Diego Resource Office and a Region 9 OSHA liaison was stationed at the FEMA Disaster Field Office in Pasadena to facilitate support. Region 9 and Cal/OSHA representatives devised a plan to visit Incident Command Posts throughout burn area. After meeting with the California Department of Forestry headquarters in Riverside, joint Federal/State OSHA teams were sent to each of the seven incident command posts to offer assistance. OSHA was well received and the Incident Commanders were eager for support. Through these coordinated contacts, OSHA discovered that firefighters were in need of additional respiratory protection.

Region 9 coordinated the purchase of 600 N95 respirators and OSHA's Cincinnati Technical Center shipped them to San Diego. The joint Federal/State OSHA teams distributed this first wave of supplies and provided training to the fire fighters in San Diego and San Bernardino Counties. Later, a request for 10,000 respirators was granted by FEMA and distribution was managed by Cal/OSHA. As the fires subsided and clean-up commenced, teams of Cal/OSHA and Region 9 compliance officers provided compliance assistance to debris contractors in the field.

The Region 9 OSHA liaison at the FEMA Disaster Field Office offered support to the U.S. Forest Service, FEMA Disaster Safety Officers, EPA, Public Affairs, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. FEMA expressed its desire to characterize the contents of the fire ash to assess safety and health precautions for Federal workers in the fire areas. FEMA issued a Mission Assignment for Region 9 to provide bulk ash sampling and personal air monitoring to achieve this goal. As FEMA personnel began canvassing the neighborhoods devastated by the fires, Region 9 industrial hygienists followed them, collecting bulk and personal samples.

By the end of the emergency 23 people were killed, including one fire fighter, 238 were injured, over 4800 residences and other buildings were destroyed and 745,663 acres burned. Through cooperative efforts, a total of 27 Federal and State OSHA personnel were able to assist workers in all stages of the disaster, providing compliance assistance, technical support, logistical support, industrial hygiene expertise and training. The OSHA response to this disaster demonstrates how a joint Federal and State effort can maximize OSHA's ability to reach out to responders and have an impact on worker safety and health in a disaster.

For more information, please contact Jennifer Hute, with OSHA Region 9.

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