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Rains May Create Toxic Runoff From Burned-Out North Bay Neighborhoods

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) -- The rain expected in the Bay Area is creating worry in the North Bay, where it's feared the upcoming showers will mix with toxic ash and chemicals and wash right into some streams.

Crews from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been working around the clock to clear burned lots of hazardous household waste, not just in an effort to rebuild but also to prevent any further damage to the area.

"We're coming in collecting these chemicals before they can migrate any further into the environment," said EPA On-Scene Coordinator Tom Dunkelman. "Time is of the essence."

The main concern now is the unknown toxins in the ash; things like solvents, pesticides, household cleaners.

Environment non-profit San Francisco Baykeeper says any number of chemicals could be present and ultimately end up in the watershed.

"If we get a big hit of contaminants into the watershed, it could take years to flush out of the system," said Baykeeper scientist Ian Wren, adding it could even take decades.

The big hit could come this weekend with the first rains since the fire.

"We already know that this sort of first flush effect is when we see the most chemicals go into the watershed in normal conditions," said Wren. "So this could really pack a wallop."

The ability to mitigate that wallop is unfortunately limited, Wren said. But that hasn't stopped people making an effort.

Some homeowners are taking matters into their own hands, such as planting grass along the edges of their burned-out property, hoping it will eventually keep their lots from adding to the runoff.

In the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, the storm drains have been plugged with barriers filled with hay - known as wattles - and sand bags in hopes of keeping the contaminates contained. Those same materials are also being used by Cal Fire on burnt hillsides.

Other homeowners have put tarps over what's left of their property, in an effort to protect not only what's theirs but also an environment that's vulnerable.

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