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Gault Middle School Fire and Hazardous Materials Risk: Q&A

Gault Middle School Fire and Hazardous Materials Risk: Q&A


January 3, 2024 Gault Middle School Fire—Assessing the risk of asbestos and other hazardous materials


UPDATED January 12, 2024



Q: Is there an especially high risk of hazardous materials or toxic chemical exposure in the surrounding neighborhood from the January 3, 2024 fire at Gault Middle School?

While there is not any special or elevated concern about hazardous materials or toxic chemical exposure in the surrounding neighborhood, it is important to note that the Tacoma Fire Department warns that ALL smoke should be considered dangerous.

The primary concern is that all smoke has the potential to be toxic and can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, make it difficult to breathe, make people feel ill or uncomfortable, and can exacerbate long-term health issues.

Any and all smoke exposure presents a higher risk for vulnerable populations—people with underlying health conditions, asthma, heart and/or lung conditions, etc., so taking personal precautions and limiting exposure by staying indoors and away from the smoke is always good.

Even a relatively small house fire incident can have a risk of hazardous materials (HAZMAT) or toxic chemical exposure. The risks related to this are significantly reduced when the smoke plume is avoided.


Q: What would happen if a HAZMAT or chemical exposure risk at a fire scene went beyond a standard precaution or irritant level?

TFD has air monitoring equipment that can assess certain toxic chemical levels in the air during a fire incident. If any detected toxins reach a severe level, an evacuation order would likely be issued.

TFD keeps a list of locations throughout the City where hazardous materials and potentially toxic chemicals are used and stored. Every business and property owner that uses or stores hazardous materials or toxic chemicals must have a hazardous materials permit—these permits are used to note the locations so that TFD responds accordingly if an emergency incident occurs at one of those locations.

TFD also regularly updates a list of buildings with elevated structural hazards for fire crews. TFD Fire Prevention staff and City Code Enforcement staff do regular assessments in the field and periodically update the list. This list is fluid and not a complete inventory, but it is updated regularly as locations are identified throughout the City, and it is a key tool for TFD to quickly assess and plan a response at a fire scene. Again, this is so the locations are known before a fire incident ever occurs and responding crews can act accordingly to ensure responder safety.


Q: Did the Gault Middle School fire incident on January 3 present any significantly higher risk of asbestos exposure, specifically?

Because of the age of the building, it is assumed that at least some asbestos materials are present, though the quantity and extent unknown.

A school site like Gault Middle School would not be a site where large quantities of hazardous materials or toxic chemicals would be used or stored—it does not have a HAZMAT permit and is not on the list of HAZMAT locations.

Asbestos in soil and/or water: Because asbestos is a fire retardant that remains solid in most fires, the contamination risk for asbestos during a fire incident is far more likely to be in the soil on site or in wastewater or stormwater runoff from the property versus airborne. Soil and water contamination risks would be addressed by other regulatory agencies after the fire is out and the TFD response has ended.


Q: What alerts or messages did the public receive during the Gault Middle School fire incident on January 3, and what was the primary concern?

A Tacoma ALERT! message was issued to roughly 2,400 residents within a one-mile radius of the incident at 6 A.M. on January 3. TFD social media messages were also issued.

The alerts warned of smoke in the area and advised people to avoid smoke exposure by remaining indoors, closing all doors and windows, etc., and that updates would be issued if needed or if the situation changed.

The primary concern was ensuring the smoke plume was avoided. Emergency notifications related to smoke from structure fires are released based upon the expected duration of the fire and public exposure to the smoke plume.


Q: Some of the smoke on January 3 got into my house, and I couldn’t completely avoid it. What should I do?

 There are several tips offered by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the Washington State Department of Health that can help reduce the effects of light smoke and make you feel more comfortable, including establishing a clean room, creating an air filter out of a few simple household items, or relocating to a public space or family or friend’s home that is not affected by the smoke.

If the smoke conditions are dangerous and you need assistance to relocate to a smoke-free environment, please call 911.


Q: Now that the fire is out, who will be responsible for assessing whether there is any asbestos contamination or other toxic material contamination on the property, and who will be responsible for clean-up, if any?

Tacoma Public Schools is the property owner, and they will be responsible for partnering with Washington State Department of Labor & Industries on identifying a properly licensed environmental firm to provide a hazards assessment of the site and a separate certified asbestos remediation and removal contractor for site assessment and clean-up, if needed.

Nearby property owners can contact their insurance company to report any potential damage and inquire about coverage for asbestos-related issues. A list of local and state-certified asbestos abatement contractors is available from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries at