Fire damaged asbestos

There are countless fires in WA each year in urban and rural areas. Sometimes these occur as major bushfires affecting many buildings. Although asbestos present does not burn, it may be physically damaged during a fire and possibly disperse into adjacent areas. If asbestos contamination is properly managed by reference to the Guidance note on the management of fire damaged asbestos (PDF 907.64KB) it poses virtually no risk to the public.

Asbestos contamination

For asbestos cement sheets (10–15 per cent asbestos), this damage often occurs as shattering from the explosive release of contained moisture into sheeting pieces. The fire asbestos impact areas include:

  • dispersed airborne free fibre and small fibre bundles
  • building skeleton and footprint
  • adjacent circular zone of coarse fragment scatter
  • areas of fine surface material (such as flakes) from smoke plume deposition (depending on wind)
  • sometimes, contamination from fire-fighting water runoff carrying fine asbestos material.

Management of asbestos impacts

Following a fire, emergency services and environmental and health agencies take interim measures to prevent disturbance of asbestos contamination. These include erecting temporary fencing if practical and cleaning of priority traffic areas. Evacuation of adjacent buildings due to asbestos contamination is only rarely necessary.

The following more thorough assessment and clean-up of the asbestos contamination is usually the responsibility of the site owner. The Local Government Environmental Health Officer (LG EHO) is normally the relevant regulatory authority under the Health (Asbestos) Regulations 1992, and supervises the process.

In some cases, such as large bushfires, the Western Australian Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements may take charge of some or all of the clean-up and work with the LG EHO in this regard.

It is important that the assessment and clean-up is done in a systematic way by asbestos professionals, using the Department of Health’s Guidance Note on the Management of Fire Damaged Asbestos 2014 and the Safe Work Australia Code of Practice - Safe Removal of Asbestos 2005.

Specifically, the asbestos contamination normally must cleaned up by an asbestos removalist with an unrestricted WorkSafe license and this should be by following a plan devised by and be under the guidance of an asbestos consultant.

In this way any asbestos fire contamination and associated public health risks will be fully addressed.

Key contacts

Asbestos professionals

Asbestos consultants – in the case of artificial surface and/or limited soil contamination this should be an occupational hygienist (external site)

In the case of extensive soil contamination, e.g. a large bushfire, this should be an environmental consultant (external site).

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