There are significant and critical differences in how Safeguard EnviroGroup conducts and analyzes samples in a wildfire smoke damage investigation compared to other hygienist companies. With millions of dollars at stake for insurance providers, correctly identifying exposure to wildfire smoke is critical to assessing the need and the extent of remediation that can be justified on an insurance claim.
Here’s the problem
Laboratory methodology currently used by other Hygienists simply identifies particles as originating from a combustion source. Unfortunately, there are a large number of sources for soot and combustion particles in every environment independent of a wildfire event.
The characterization of combustion particles is an essential part of establishing the presence of debris from a wildfire. That characterization is much more than identifying charred wood, soot, or black material. The problem with most Hygienist investigations and, subsequent laboratory sample analysis is they simply look for and identify combustion particles and black particles in general. Consequently, false positives and false negatives can dominate the results of typical soot, char and ash analysis, which does not focus on the emissions of the fuel which actually burned and are the subject of the claim. Case studies show, values of 5% concentration levels are possible when the presence of the wildfire assemblage is actually absent.
What complicates most Hygienist investigations, indoor environments are impacted by a wide variety of sources which contribute combustion particles and black particles including fireplaces, cigarettes, cigars, pipes, wood-burning stoves, ovens, toasters with or without burnt toast, electrostatic filters, heat exchange surfaces in gas or oil furnaces, use of power saws or drills, candles or oil lamps, printers and copy machines, tire wear, shoe wear, fretting metal wear, dark minerals, insect debris, fungal debris, decayed plant material, insect and arachnid frass, newspaper ink, toner, cosmetics, pencil debris and more. These particles are always or often black and are commonly found in indoor environments.
Further, outdoor ambient particles are also a major contributor to indoor particle concentrations. Studies have shown the relationship between indoor and outdoor particle concentrations is influenced by the specific indoor/outdoor (I/O) ratio, ventilation, infiltration, and penetration factors. This explains why some homes, independent of a fire event and without a fireplace, might show elevation of combustion particles which is due to wood burning from neighborhood fireplaces that can contribute to indoor combustion particle concentrations throughout the immediate vicinity.
Investigations which concentrate only on combustion particles and black particles can be misleading as these particles are always present to some extent in indoor environments. Finding charred wood in a sample without the other materials characteristic of a specific fire has little significance in regard to exposure to that fire.
Here’s the solution
Based on wildfire signature assemblages, Safeguard EnviroGroup uses a highly specialized laboratory analysis that can positively identify combustion particles to a specific wildfire event or that of an alternative combustion source.
Unlike other hygienist firms, Safeguard EnviroGroup’s comprehensive investigation includes assembly analysis, a proven, highly specialized laboratory method which involves the identification of the assemblage of combustion products from the fuel which burned and the combustion source that is the subject of the insured’s claim. That includes characterizing the types of charred wood, phytoliths from the plants that made up the fuel, skeletonized cell structure of those plants in the ash, the burnt soil from the updrafts, and even aerosolized fire retardant. Forest, chaparral, and savannahs are not made up of one or two plant types but dozens of different plants. These all contribute to the smoke and form a signature for that fire. This signature forms the assemblage of particles marking the specific wildfire.
Assemblage analysis is basically the use of multiple pieces of information to arrive at a conclusion not justified by any single component of the assemblage. Assemblage analysis is widely used in a number of scientific pursuits though it is not always called assemblage analysis. It’s applied by medical doctors when they use symptoms to diagnose a health condition. The diagnosis is not made based on a single symptom but on a “suite” (assemblage) of symptoms that characterize an illness. It’s used by petrologists to identify a probable oil-bearing rock formation. It is used by paleontologists and archeologists to characterize ancient climates and identify ancient cultures. It is also frequently used to assess water quality. Assemblage analysis has many applications, including the characterization of environmental quality and the sources of contaminants in the environment.
Why others don’t or can’t do it
Applying assemblage analysis to environmental samples requires special training not typically available from a University curriculum. As in any specialized area of analysis, the analyst requires specialized training and experience under a mentor. It is not the laboratory that has the skill, it is the analyst. The analyst must recognize the thermally modified calcium oxalate phytoliths. The analyst must recognize the cross-field pitting, the bag cell pores, the structure of conifer pores, the fine structure of hardwood tracheids, the leaf cell-island structure, grass silica phytoliths, etc.
It takes a lot of extra work and extensive experience on behalf of the Hygienist and the laboratory to ensure this level of accuracy and defensibility. Investigating the exposure of a home to wildfire smoke requires some basic familiarity with the materials being burned and how these materials burn. Wildfires are very selective in what they burn. Some basic familiarity with the plants in the area of the wildfire is required. That means the analyst must know the name of the fire involved. Then reference materials can be reviewed to characterized the biome. Knowing the major plants indicates the fuels and what markers should be present. An additional source of information on the plants that are burning is often available on the internet in area specific publications. Searching for information on the fire provides photographs of the fire and the fuel. A review of plants in the area provides more detail on the fuel. Microscope slide libraries or photographs of debris from wildfires of different types provide the reference materials.
Wildfires are unique and each biome has its own characteristics. Chaparral is a mix of plants just as is the forest but the mix is different. Adenostoma species, Oak, Brittlebush, Agave, Sumac, etc. are common in Southern California. Every biome is different, just as in the case of forest fires. Each location has its own characteristic assemblage. That is why knowing the location of the fire is important to the analysis.
Defensible and Indisputable Results
Assemblage analysis is the only laboratory approach that actually identifies the emissions from a specific wildfire as being present in an indoor environment. The quantification criteria for exposure used in the assemblage analysis method is independent of other particles that may be on the surface sampled. This proven method has been described in multiple industry wildfire guidelines including; American Industrial Hygienist Association (AIHA) Technical Guide for Wildfire Impact Assessments; A Guide for the Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Professional, ACAC Study and Exam Review Guide for the Council-certified Fire and Smoke Damage Consultant and IAQA Approved Training Course for Fire and Smoke Damage certification.
What’s more, all of our wildfire experts at Safeguard EnviroGroup are ACAC Council-certified Fire and Smoke Damage Consultants which requires at least 8 years’ experience investigating wildfires, passing a difficult exam and approval by the certification board. Our Hygienists have conducted hundreds of smoke damage assessments involving every major California wildfire in modern history. Safeguard EnviroGroup is acknowledged among insurance carriers, attorneys, Independent and Public Adjusters as being impartial and unbiased. Our thorough and comprehensive wildfire smoke damage assessments are well accepted by all involved parties as fair, impartial and accurate. More importantly, our results and reports are defensible and indisputable.
Further, Safeguard EnviroGroup is the distinct leader in the field of fire and smoke damage investigations. Members of our staff have published authoritative wildfire investigation and remediation guidelines in peer-reviewed technical publications and have spoken at industry conferences including those hosted by the IICRC, AIHA and the IAQA. Brad Kovar, the President and CEO of Safeguard EnviroGroup, is a founding member of the AIHA Wildfire Project Team and is a noted subject and testifying expert in wildfire smoke investigations and remediation.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide you the distinctions between Safeguard EnviroGroup’s wildfire smoke damage analysis and others performing this type of survey. If you aren’t already using Safeguard EnviroGroup for your fire and smoke claims, why not give us a call at (626)335-3154 for your next claim. Our offices around Southern California are staffed with experienced Hygienist ensuring quick scheduling and coordination among all parties.