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Wildfire Debris Cleanup: Choosing Material Handling Equipment

The 2018 wildfire season was California’s most destructive on record. Over 8,500 fires burned across California’s Golden Coast, damaging nearly 2 million acres of land and property. The California fires cost the nation nearly $5.3 billion in damages and fire suppression efforts.

Now that the mission to contain and suppress California’s deadliest fires has ceased, a new mission has risen to the surface: wildfire debris cleanup and recovery.

After the devastation, thousands of pounds of burnt debris and hazardous waste need to be removed from these burn zones — and it’s going to take a sizeable team to get the job done.

So, how can material handling industries help in the wildfire cleanup efforts? By providing durable, reliable equipment that can maneuver large, heavy loads of debris safely, quickly, and effectively.

What Does Wildfire Cleanup Look Like?

According to CalRecycle (the agency that has been tasked with leading the effort for fire debris removal by the California Wildfires Statewide Recovery Resources), there are two “phases” in their debris removal program. These phases are as followed:

Phase 1: The Removal of Household Hazardous Wastes.

  • This means that there is a conscious effort to enter premises and remove household hazardous wastes such as heavy propane tanks, compressed gas cylinders, and solvents from these properties.
  • Along with the removal of these household wastes, there also needs to be an assessment to ensure that these properties have not been infiltrated by toxins or carcinogens, such as asbestos, and to remove these toxins if they are found.

The removal of these household hazards must be handled delicately and professionally — and every load of debris must be accounted for. Record-keeping is as much a part of the cleanup effort as hauling loads themselves. Phase 2: Debris Removal

Debris removal has a few more steps than the removal of household hazardous wastes.

  • Step 1 includes a site assessment and related documentation.
    • This step involves measuring and recording foundation and structures, debris, utility infrastructure, and property-specific hazards. This step also includes collecting soil samples that must be evaluated to determine if any asbestos-containing materials were left behind and need to be removed before workers can proceed safely.
  • Step 2 is the actual removal of all of the debris.
    • This includes removing the burnt debris, foundations, any trees that have been badly burned and have fallen over and/or are in danger of falling over and causing harm, and any of the previously tested soil that was proven to be contaminated with toxins.
  • Step 3 involves planning for future “reactions” from the environment. For every action that takes place in our environment, CalRecycle suggests, there is a subsequent reaction.
    • This could mean putting safe practices and procedures in place to handle flash flooding, the controlling of sediment runoff, and to try and help bring back the vegetation that has been destroyed by fire damage.
  • Step 4 is simply the final inspection.
    • This step is to help provide property owners with certifications once it is determined that their lot has been cleared out so that they can be eligible to receive a building permit.

Each of these steps are imperative to the wildfire debris removal efforts, and must be done in the most efficient — but also in the safest — way.

With a project this big, it’s all hands on deck, and material handling equipment can make each worker much more productive, while improving safety for this labor-intensive task.

How Can Material Handling Equipment Aid in the Wildfire Cleanup Effort?

Several million tons of heavy, loose, damaged debris is going to need to be cleared away before residents can consider rebuilding. This means that volunteers and workers are going to need equipment that can handle heavy loads and can speed up the process without sacrificing safety.

Take a page from traditional material-handling industries, like manufacturing and warehousing. Many of the products translate directly from the warehouse floor to the post-wildfire recovery effort.

For instance, heavy industry applications use equipment that can hold and maneuver thousands of pounds of inventory. Products such as the Forward Bin Tipper attach directly to forklifts to carry loads of up to 2,205 pounds. Then, with the touch of a button, this fork attachment gently tilts and empties bins, giving a single forklift operator the power to fill dumpsters from the seat of the truck.

Other products, such as the Nu-Star Power Pusher, can attach to bins of debris and allow for a single person to maneuver up to 50,000 pounds, significantly limiting muscle strain and providing far greater productivity.

Apart from being able to carry heavy loads, volunteers and workers are going to need equipment to help them keep track of everything they’re moving. Remember, documentation is a crucial part of cleaning up after wildfires.

Fortunately, the latest generation of material containers can communicate with computer systems, creating an automatic log of weights, locations, and other pertinent data. Integrated HID global RFID tags can help waste management easily identify and trace waste streams, monitor sorting quality, and can track the number of times a container collects waste.

There are hundreds of options in material handling equipment that can be used to advance the wildfire cleanup efforts, and material handling industries are eager to help!


"Debris Removal." WildfireRecovery. California Wildfires Statewide Recovery Resources, Nov. 2018. Web. 25 Jan. 2019.

McDermid, Riley. "Wildfire cleanup rounds up 2 million tons of debris — here's where it will go.BizJournals. San Francisco Business Times, 21 Feb. 2018. Web. 25 Jan. 2019.

"RFID Waste Management." HIDGlobal. HID Global Corporation, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2019.

"Wildfire Debris Cleanup and Recovery." CalRecycle. CalRecycle, 28 Dec. 2018. Web. 25 Jan. 2019.