A sign warning residents not to drink the water posted along Steele Canyon Road at the entrance to Berryessa Highlands. Following the lighting complex fires in August, residents have been advised not to drink or bathe in the local water out of concerns for benzene and other contaminants. ANNE WERNIKOFF-CALMATTERS

Unsafe to drink: Wildfires threaten Rural Towns with Tainted Water

Oct 10, 2020 at 4:45am

Rachel Becker, CalMatters

LAKE BERRYESSA — For more than a month after a wildfire raced through his lakeside community and destroyed his Napa County home, Kody Petrini couldn’t drink the water from the taps. He wasn’t even supposed to boil it.

And, worried about harming his 16-month-old, Petrini wouldn’t wash his youngest son Levi with it. Instead, he took the extraordinary precaution of bathing him in bottled water.

Among the largest wildfires in California history, the LNU Lightning Complex fires killed five people and destroyed nearly 1,500 structures — including whole blocks of the Berryessa Highlands neighborhood where Petrini’s home stood.

Camped out in a trailer on his in-laws’ nearby lot, the 32-year-old father of two, along with all of his neighbors, was warned not to drink the water or boil it because it could be contaminated with dangerous compounds like benzene that seep into pipes in burned areas.

Drinking water has been contaminated with hazardous chemicals after at least three California wildfires in recent years: in Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in 2017, in Paradise after the Camp Fire in 2018 and now in parts of the San Lorenzo Valley burned by the CZU Lightning Complex Fires that began in August.

When wildfires spread across California, they leave a cascade of water problems in their wake: Some communities have their drinking water poisoned by toxic substances. Others wrestle with ash and debris washed into reservoirs and lakes. And many living in remote stretches of the state struggle with accessing enough water to fight fires.

The cost of fixing the damage to water systems: up to $150 million in just one small town.

Towns and water agencies also are grappling with advice to give residents in fire-ravaged areas, who are confused by warnings that seem to continuously change about whether their water is safe.

In a state plagued by water shortages, rural California has suffered a cascade of water woes in the wake of wildfires that is likely to happen again and again as climate change primes the West to burn.

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