Man on fire: Andrew Whelton's rapid journey to national recommendations for post-wildfire water recovery

Following the events of September 11, 2001, Andrew Whelton, a young engineer, joined the U.S. Army's Medical Command Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (CHPPM) and found himself surrounded by high-level government officials discussing the potential for attacks on our nation's drinking water infrastructure.

Whelton, who had just completed his master's degree in environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, was intrigued, partly by the fact that his presence in the room was necessary. 

“I didn’t have 25-years of experience. I was 25 years-old and was able to contribute to these conversations,” Whelton says. “I realized that needed to change.”

Whelton returned to Virginia Tech and completed a PhD in 2009, examining how water utilities and communities can respond to and recover from disasters.

“The engineering and public health fields are very good at constructing, operating, and monitoring systems to deliver safe drinking water. But what happens when an entire system is wrecked? We do not train engineers to operate in the unknown, to go into that system and figure out how to put the pieces back together,” explains Whelton, now professor of civil and environmental and ecological engineering (EEE) at Purdue University.

Andrew Wheltonprofessor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Man on Fire

Lately, Andrew Whelton is like a man on fire. Now the nation’s go-to recovery expert after high-profile efforts to remove toxic chemicals from drinking water following the Tubbs, Camp, Marshall, and Maui wildfires, Whelton is driven to help people, who, once the smoke cleared, believed they had nothing left to lose.

“The man just doesn’t stop,” EEE PhD student Kris Isaacson says. “I’m always impressed just seeing how much time and how much effort he wants to give to help.”

Whelton and his team of EEE experts were the first to prove the mechanisms by which fire contaminates drinking water, and Whelton’s team is compiling the first national recommendations on preparing for and responding to a major public health threat posed by wildfires - volatile organic compounds (VOCs) invading water systems. This guidance is vital, as a 30% global increase in wildfires is expected by 2050. 

An explosion of media attention has followed Whelton’s efforts, most recently a short film featuring his work as part of BBC StoryWork’s “The Climate and Us” series.

But it was not always this way. Back in 2017, Whelton’s team could not find a single public record of a drinking water system being chemically tested after a wildfire. 

So how, in five short years, did Andrew Whelton shine a light on an unknown problem, determine its causes, and provide national recommendations for addressing it?

BBC StoryWorks “The Climate and Us” short film featuring Purdue University professor Andrew Whelton's wildfire recovery efforts.

Piecing the puzzle together:  A timeline of key findings

The power of decisions

In January 2014, the Freedom Industries Chemical Spill contaminates West Virginia’s Elk River with 10,000 gallons of industrial solvent, impacting a staggering 15% of the state population’s tap water.

Two weeks later, Whelton conducts a rapid in-home survey and water testing to understand tap water chemical levels and the effectiveness of flushing to decontaminate 2,200 miles of water mains.

“The speed at which you recover is defined by how fast you ask the right questions, get the right data, and make the right decisions,” Whelton explains.

Whelton publishes a study revealing numerous flaws in the disaster-response and recovery process applied in West Virginia, including a lack of immediate in-home testing to determine chemical exposures and differences between households. Many residents become ill from inhaling chemicals while flushing their pipes, including Whelton himself.

“The issue with disaster response, when it comes to drinking water contamination and public health, is that people sometimes make decisions regardless of whether or not they have the data or knowledge to support what they are telling people,” Whelton says. 

Whelton warns that government agencies and utilities are ill-prepared to deal with post-disaster water contamination.

In five short years, professor Andrew Whelton and his team of EEE experts have brought attention to post-wildfire water contamination, conducted research to determine its causes, and contributed to the first national recommendations for addressing it. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

A milestone

In October 2017, Santa Rosa, California conducts the first known post-wildfire testing of a U.S. drinking-water supply, finding high levels of acutely toxic benzene. Odorless and tasteless at levels that can be immediately harmful, benzene is found at concentrations of up 40,000 parts per billion (500 is EPA’s maximum exposure) after the Tubbs Fire destroys 8,000 structures and kills 44 people.

“We are where we are today because of utility professionals who did the right thing and looked for health risks when they didn't have to. It’s probably been happening for decades, but nobody was testing water for VOCs. We can't un-know the things we know,” Whelton says.  

An unrecognized and potentially widespread problem—fire-related water contamination—is suddenly brought to light, as well as the substantial cost of inaction:  Santa Rosa spends over $5M to replace just five miles of impacted pipe.

Maui County recently issued an unsafe water alert to citizens in Lahaina and Upper Kula, Hawaii, advising them not to drink or boil tap water due to wildfire-related contamination. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Whelton)

Asking the right questions

In November 2018, the Camp Fire in Paradisethe deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, burns for two weeks. Months later, Whelton’s team travel to Paradise upon Santa Rosa’s recommendation after toxic levels of benzene are again discovered.

Local and state officials cannot figure out how to determine what is damaged or unsafe. Paradise’s entire water system is destroyed, costing over $150 million.

“Protecting people from harm means knowing what questions to ask. When a wildfire happens, you need to know what chemicals to look for, where to look, what the exposures are, and how to bring everyone back to safe infrastructure. If you can't answer those questions, then you're making decisions that impact public health without any evidence tethering you,” Whelton explains.

Whelton has been working on the first question—what chemicals to test for—since 2017, when his team began compiling a list of chemicals likely to contaminate drinking water, one of many response-and- recovery resources available from the Whelton-headed Purdue Center for Plumbing Safety.

Paradise provides Whelton’s team with vital clues about how wildfires cause water contamination. The team finds VOCs in underground service lines and water meters made of plastics, which had burned and melted; however, the source water is not contaminated, nor are most of the water mains buried deep below ground.

To help households recover from the Camp Fire, Whelton’s Purdue team leads multiple universities deliver post-disaster training in Paradise, California.

“When people have nothing, someone has to step in and help them. Often, there is no agent in the room who represents the direct interests of the people impacted. That is one way I can help,” Whelton argues.

Professor Andrew Whelton leads initiatives like the Center for Plumbing Safety in an effort to ensure the water we use at home, at work and at school is safe. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Fire and water? How wildfires cause water contamination

Using testing results from the Tubbs and Camp Fires, Whelton and his team, including EEE faculty members Caitlin Proctor and Amisha Shahpublish a study outlining potential factors (2020) that influence wildfire-induced drinking water contamination.

As buildings are destroyed, water rapidly drains from pressurized pipes, threatening firefighting efforts and causing depressurization. Contaminants ranging from soot, ash, asbestos, heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, to toxic chemicals generated from burning materials are sucked into the water system and spread.

However, this is not the only potential contamination source. Whelton and his team publish some of the earliest evidence (2021) revealing that heat-degraded plastic pipes can generate and then leach toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) directly into drinking water. They discovered that materials like PVC and HDPE begin degrading at temperatures as low as 392 degrees (wildfires can exceed 1400 degrees), meaning the pipes do not have to burn, but merely get very hot, to generate VOCs. Once in the system, these toxic chemicals can linger and leach into drinking water for years.

While the plastics pipe industry disputes Whelton’s findings, research conducted by the California Department of Public Health confirms that fire-damaged plastic pipes and smoke intrusion both caused contamination during the Camp Fire.

“I’m often warned that I’m going to lose out on money,” Whelton says. “But people are getting hurt. Why would I sit by quietly and let that happen?”

Whelton’s team now believes that the thermal degradation of plastic materials present in water systems, back siphoning of contaminated water from damaged infrastructure, and contaminated air and ash sucked into depressurized systems all contribute to post-wildfire water-quality crises.

EEE professor Andrew Whelton explains how wildfires cause water contamination (Purdue University News).

A turning point

In December 2021, the Marshall Fire becomes the most destructrive wildfire in Colorado's history, causing more than $2 billion in damage to Boulder County. Armed with the knowledge gained from previous disasters, Whelton and his team are called in to help just five days after the fire—a rapid response that helps to prevent a system-wide crisis.

“The Marshall Fire was the most effective disaster response to a damaged water system that I’ve ever been a part of,” Whelton says.

To Whelton’s surprise and relief, Colorado’s recovery efforts are already applying findings from his recently published studies.

“I was at a meeting in Colorado, and I could not believe that five years after the Tubbs Fire, we were talking about VOC water contamination like it was common,” Whelton says

Whelton’s published case study on the Marshall Fire offers a comprehensive set of scientific and policy recommendations for improving water system disaster response and recovery. The 20 identified needs include planning for power loss; installing shut-off valves, backflow prevention devices, and separating systems into zones to limit pressure loss and isolate contamination; and having clear guidelines and established personnel to conduct accurate and rapid water-testing. Additionally, Whelton recommends updating building codes and better informing households of water-safety issues.

Whelton’s team was also the first to publish how wildfires contaminate private drinking water wells and how benzene contaminates water softeners.

Just five years after Santa Rosa conducted the first post-wildfire water testing, the work of Whelton’s team has led the EPA to issue national recommendations for addressing drinking-water contamination after wildfires. Funded by the Water Research Foundation, the team’s “concept of operations plan” will be published in 2024. It is the culmination of 20+ years spent investigating a problem Whelton first identified as a fresh-faced, Army civilian engineer—a lack of expertise and guidelines for dealing with the sudden loss of a vital resource.

Whelton and his students spent a week in January 2022 conducting free water testing for private wells in Colorado after the Marshall Fire. Pictured is Kristofer Isaacson, PhD student in environmental and ecological engineering. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Whelton)

Helping people restore a vital resource—and their peace of mind

Sitting in a Purdue EEE conference room for yet another interview, Whelton scrolls through his phone, flooded with daily updates from community leaders he previously assisted and queries from desperate strangers.

“Please help me,” reads the subject line of an email from a father in Flushing, Michigan, concerned about the “harmless” air emissions that drove his family from their home. Whelton assists the resident in discovering that it is hazardous plastics manufacturing waste sickening his family and coating his children’s toys.

“Part of what drives me is to help people who are asking questions and not getting answers or getting the wrong answers,” Whelton says.  

Recently called to help after wildfires devastated Maui, Whelton is now joined by a network of researchers, graduate students, and public leaders with firsthand experience restoring safe drinking water to their own communities after wildfires.

“You see that it starts to build a system of helping people, where it was, ‘In California, we had this experience, and then Colorado took this expertise and repeated the things that were correct and did some things better,’” observes EEE PhD student Paula Coelho, who was on Whelton’s team in Lahaina.

After a public meeting to answer the Lahaina community’s questions, Whelton is approached by a relieved mother who expresses her gratitude that experts are addressing the situation.  

“I’m giving them peace of mind that somebody is looking out for them that knows exactly how to protect them and recover,” Whelton says.

Current and former city leaders from Louisville, Colorado, and Paradise, California, join Purdue’s Andrew Whelton (back left) and Paula Coelho (middle right) at dinner after a long day supporting wildfire recovery efforts in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Whelton.)

Training students to engineer the unknown

Determined to expand the network of disaster response and recovery experts beyond himself, Whelton brings his EEE graduate students into the constellation of public officials, government agencies, and unknown variables that impact decision-making after disasters.

“The way we train students to operate in the unknown is we bring them along. We don't just teach them or help them learn in a laboratory. We bring them with us. The diversity of approaches in Purdue EEE fosters an environment where students can get real-world experience outside of the classroom. It also offers students the flexibility to learn what they want to learn within it,” Whelton says.  

Dr. Christian Ley (left), postdoctoral associate at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Purdue EEE alumna, and Caroline Jankowski (right), Purdue EEE graduate student, test water samples collected after Colorado’s Marshall Fire. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Whelton)

In rooms surrounded by high-level officials, these young engineers often realize—as Whelton did during the aftermath of September 11th —that they have valuable expertise to contribute.

“Something I think graduate students struggle with is imposter syndrome, and I’m no exception. You don’t really understand how much you know,” EEE PhD student Kris Isaacson says

In Whelton’s disaster and emergencies course at Purdue (CE 597), he uses case studies of disaster responses to train students how to approach unknown challenges in the real world. He frequently hears from former students who found themselves in the midst of a disaster and used Whelton’s guidance to contact relevant agencies and restore vital utilities to their homes quickly.

“What I’m trying to do is train students to go out and be effective members of society so that if they see a need, they can respond in a positive way,” Whelton says.

Whelton’s advice to his students—and his own 3 young children?

“Whatever field you choose, help make the world be a better place.” 


Writer:  Jessica Mehr, Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Contributors:  David Ching and Kayla Wiles, Purdue University

Sources:  Andrew Whelton, Paula Coelho, Kristofer Isaacson