Monitoring water quality after wildfires

Nov 28, 2018 at 3:00pm

Chemical and Engineering News by Katherine Bourzac

The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The fire killed 88 people according to the most recent estimates, consumed 18,000 homes and other structures, and burned down the entire town of Paradise. Firefighters contained the conflagration only after it rained during Thanksgiving week. But when the weather shifted, not everyone felt at ease.

California State University, Chico water-quality chemist Jackson Webster says he felt a mixture of relief and trepidation when the rain came. The first storm of the season not only tamped down the fire, it also began the process of flushing an unknown mixture of metals, toxic organic compounds, and other chemicals from the air, ash, and debris into the region’s creeks and rivers. Last week, Webster took his first water samples from a stream that drains from Paradise. The water, he says, has a strong smoky smell. “The first thing you notice is the colors,” he says. Butte Creek is dark brown, like overbrewed black tea.

Environmental chemists don’t know what contaminants will make their way into streams, rivers, and lakes when a fire consumes an entire town. When wildfires reach urban areas, they don’t just burn trees and other plants. They also incinerate houses, cars, and stores, which can be full of electronics, industrial chemicals, fire retardants, plastics, paint, and more. “It is a crazy situation,” says Newsha Ajami, an engineer at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment who serves on the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Researchers like Webster and Ajami in California are now studying the chemical aftermath of fires like the Camp Fire to get a better sense of the environmental risks they pose to the state’s water supplies and aquatic ecosystems.

Such studies are critical to safeguarding water quality not just in the Western US, Webster says. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released last Friday, wildfires will become more frequent and burn larger areas as a result of climate change. California has long had a wildfire season, which now threatens to stretch year-round. The report warns that even regions of the US where fire has not been a seasonal risk, including the Southeast, will see more frequent burns as a result of climate change.

Webster and DePalma-Dow hope their work will help researchers and government administrators dealing with future wildfires to know what to look for and how to prevent potential problems. DePalma-Dow says there’s already a certain degree of information sharing going on between wildfire-prone counties in California about what contaminants to look for. They’ll need to keep those lines of communication open, Webster says. “It’s likely this will happen again.”

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