After The Dust Settles:  A Woolsey Fire Sampling Update

By Arnie Gundersen


We believe that most of our readers are well-aware that Californians faced two disastrous fires and subsequent heavy rains during November.  The first fire, named the Camp Fire occurred in Northern California where it destroyed the town of Paradise, killing almost 100 people and displacing thousands.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), one of California’s largest utilities has notified financial regulators that it experienced problems with one of its transmission lines at the same time the fire began and in the area where the fire started. It is possible that PG&E’s fallen wires may have been the cause of the fire, something that will be determined only by a thorough investigation.  At Fairewinds Energy, our hearts go out to all the people grieving from their loss of loved ones and/or their home due to the magnitude of the Camp Fire cataclysm.

A second fire, called the Woolsey Fire, occurred further south near LA. Several people died and again, thousands of people were displaced as their homes were destroyed. Helicopter sightings at the time the Woolsey Fire started indicate that a Southern California Edison transformer malfunction and fire likely initiated that second blaze.

What few people know is that the Woolsey Fire began at or adjacent to the site of America’s first nuclear meltdown in 1959 at the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory (SSFL) about 30 miles north of Los Angeles (LA). Federal and state regulators claim that no radioactivity was released as result of the fire, however, the Woolsey Fire burned areas previously contaminated with radioactive isotopes that emanated from 1959 SSFL meltdown. The government agencies may be correct, and no radioactivity migrated, but then again, the post-fire ash and dust may have spread the pre-existing meltdown toxicity far and wide. Historically, forest fires near both Chernobyl and Fukushima that occurred years after each site’s respective meltdowns threw radioactivity up into the air where it migrated to other locations via weather movement. Re-volatilizing radioactivity is the technical name for this fire and weather induced phenomena in which radioactive dust literally blows in the wind or falls-out in rain and snow (remember the word fallout from atmospheric testing on atomic bombs).

As the Woolsey Fire burned and spread from the northeast to the western California shore at Malibu Beach, state and federal authorities immediately claimed there was no radiation risk to the public. That may turn out to be fact, but without any thorough scientific testing, we believe that this is wishful thinking. Official statements made during a major emergency to calm the public are no substitute for rigorous scientific analysis. 

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Acting upon the request of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) and other local community inspired groups as well as individual business and homeowners, Fairewinds Energy Education is working with community volunteer citizen-scientists to collect dust samples throughout areas where radioactive dust from the Woolsey Fire may have migrated. These dust samples are collected free of charge by community volunteer citizen-scientists who want to track the possible migration of radioactive dust. 

Good scientific analysis begins with great sample collection, and we are thrilled by the response from citizens and volunteer sample collection teams working in communities from near the SSFL all the way to Malibu Beach. Thank you all for your incredible efforts during these times of community stress and personal loss

Potentially contaminated samples have been processed in this sampling program at a remarkable rate and are now at the lab where the real work begins!  We have already received more than 100 samples from myriad areas throughout Southern California, with many more samples on the way to the lab. Please review the community volunteer citizen-science sampling protocols here.

According to Dr. Marco Kaltofen, who is working with Fairewinds to analyze the incoming data;

“This is the part of the study that is so important to the investigator, but so frustrating to outside observers. My job right now is to collect as much contemporary physical evidence as possible. Analysis and results come after the evidence is collected and the data is produced, and only afterwards is this followed by conclusions (or at least insight).”

The more samples we receive, the more statistically significant this analysis will be. If you and/or your community are located in the greater LA area and would like to participate, please read the sampling collection protocols and contact Fairewinds Energy Education about sending additional samples. Please do not send samples without first arranging for registration and delivery as any unmarked and unlisted boxes will be thrown out and not processed.

Additionally, every community member who has spoken with us is asking that first responders contribute their vehicle air filters for analysis, as these vehicles where the closest to the smoke and dust. Our daughter was a paramedic for 12-years and is now an emergency room trauma nurse, so we know it is daunting for EMS personnel to deal with the possibility that they may have been exposed to radioactive smoke as they worked to fight the Woolsey Fire. Only a thorough analysis of the data will determine whether that is true or not, so please support your local town, neighbors, and family members by participating in this community inspired volunteer citizen-scientist sampling program.

While we have already begun the first phase of analysis on the samples thus received, it will take almost six-months for the 5-stage process to conclude and for the scientists involved to derive conclusions from the data. This thorough process will include the use of Geiger counters, liquid scintillation detectors, and scanning electron microscopes. We urge everyone to expect these delays. This is the normal pace of thorough scientific analyses. We want the data to speak for itself and tell the complete story, not simple conjecture for the sake of expediency.

Fairewinds Energy Education will keep you informed as we let the data do the talking.