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Frequently Asked Questions - Camp Fire Response and Recovery

Drinking Water Contamination in the Camp Fire Area

The 2018 Camp Fire wildfire caused physical damage to components of the drinking water system including hydrants and tanks, but also below ground pipes and meters. The wildfire also damaged buildings and irrigation systems that were connected to the drinking water system. Drinking water wells were also damaged. Pipe breaks occurred and chemicals also likely entered the water systems when air was sucked in because pressure was lost.

The exact origin of the chemicals being found in the drinking water is unknown, but there are many theories. A common theory is that plastics such as pipes, meters, and gaskets could have pyrolyzed (PIE-ROE-LIE-ZZD). Heat exposure can cause plastics to chemically breakdown into other chemicals. This may have happened in buildings (they are connected to the water system) and in the buried plastic meters and pipe systems below the ground. Some plastic pyrolysis (PIE-RALL-HLY-SIS) chemicals have been found in the water impacted by the Camp Fire. Another theory is that chemicals nearby were sucked into the water system when pressure was lost. We have heard about others. The contamination does not have one exact origin and for different parts of the same system there could be different sources. There is, however, agreement that the wildfire caused this problem.

Here, a WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM stores and transports water to the ultimate user’s property. The items included in the WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM are the transmission mains (pipes), water mains (pipes), service lines (pipes), hydrants, storage tanks, pump stations, valves, backflow prevention devices, meters, and meter boxes that are owned and operated by the water utility, before water reaches the customers property. These assets can be below or above ground. For the Paradise Irrigation District (PID) and Del Oro Water Company, WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM items are owned and operated by the water utility, not the person receiving the water.

WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS –do not– include the buried drinking water service line (which is a pipe) on the customer’s property. There is however a service line on the other side of the water meter that IS owned by the utility. The WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM also does not include the pipes, tanks, valves, fittings, faucets, irrigation system, and other water items on the user’s property including those inside buildings. That is called BUILDING PLUMBING. Check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page.

For the WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS ONLY, many volatile organic compounds or VOCs have been found in the water. The state has found heavy metals in a drinking water sample, but did not find any metals above concerning limits. The state found multiple VOCs in a water sample and the Paradise Irrigation District (PID) found multiple VOCs in their water samples. Several have health-based drinking water exposure limits. As of February 13, the limited amount of testing conducted has revealed benzene, naphthalene, and styrene exceeded their health-based drinking water limits in the PID system. Del Oro Water Company looked for and found benzene above its drinking water exposure limit in some water samples. As additional WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM test results come in, other chemicals may or may not also exceed their drinking water exposure limits. Much more testing is needed to better understand the magnitude and extent of contamination.

NOTE: No formal project has been conducted to determine what chemicals are in BUILDING PLUMBING or how to test in commercial or residential buildings. Buildings are very complex and simply assuming the approach being used in the WATER DISTRIBUTION is exactly the same as buildings is inappropriate. Check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page.

Some people and organizations are testing water for benzene only. Benzene is one of many chemicals in the water distribution system. It has also been reported that “Full VOC” testing is being conducted by some. The “Full VOC” test does not measure every imaginable volatile organic compound (VOC) possible. This is misnamed. We call it “wide VOC scan” to be more correct. The test looks for more than just benzene, but not for all VOCs. One lab may look for 30 VOC chemicals in their lab report while another may look for 65 chemicals for the same water sample. Another lab may look for 65 chemicals and then also other 20+ non-routine VOCs (called tentatively identified chemicals or TICs).

The chemicals the lab will look for and tell you about depends on what you specifically ask them for, their capability, and how much they charge you.


I Have Questions About the Water in My Building

PID, like the City of Santa Rosa, is requiring 72 hr hold times (also called stagnation times) for water inside their pipes before they collect a water sample. This is to increase the chances that chemicals inside the pipes have enough time to leach into the water to be found. If the water does not spend enough time in the pipes, then chemicals may be present, but the laboratory would not find it.

There’s no evidence that 72 hours is or is not necessary for BUILDING PLUMBING. No formal project has been conducted to determine what chemicals are in BUILDING PLUMBING or how to test in commercial or residential buildings. Buildings are very complex and simply assuming the approach being used in the WATER DISTRIBUTION is exactly the same as buildings is inappropriate. Check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page.

There has been no study to determine what chemicals are in buildings in the Camp Fire area or how to test for them in commercial or residential buildings.

  • Buildings are very complex and do not have the same water as WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS. Applying the same thinking to plumbing without understanding plumbing is inappropriate.
  • Does your water distribution system deliver hot water to you? No. Hot water has a completely different plumbing system.
  • The indoor water stagnation time, where and how the sample is collected in the buildings, what chemicals are looked for, how frequently samples are collected are critical questions that have not yet been answered.
  • Check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page.
  • It has been and continues to be our recommendation that a rapid project be conducted to figure out how to test potentially contaminated buildings. From that project, results can be then provided to all building owners. As of March 3, 2019, no such study had been initiated.

First, “leech” is a blood-sucking organism. Leeches have not been found in any wildfire water system. This is a common spelling mistake. “Leach” is likely what you mean. Leaching basically means ‘coming out of’.

The chemicals found in the drinking water from WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS affected by the Camp Fire can penetrate or permeate into plastic pipes, gaskets, and liners. This is like putting red food coloring on a yellow sponge. The red penetrates the sponge. When cleaner water enters the plumbing, the chemicals that went into the plastic can then come out of the plastic. This is “leaching.” This would be like putting that now red-colored sponge in clean water and seeing the water turn pink.

Leaching has or is likely taking place in two places: (1) WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM and (2) BUILDING PLUMBING. Different chemicals found in the Camp Fire area will go into and out of plastics at very different rates. Additionally, different types of plastics will have very different rates for the same chemical. Different plastics are used in each of these piping systems. This makes cleaning them or decontaminating them difficult.

We have completed a lot of testing previously about chemicals and their permeation and leaching from plumbing plastics and removal from other plumbing items. Consider watching our Plumbing Safety video about leaching, and also check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page. We also have more of our previous studies on our BIO PAGE.

No, but the absence of odor does not mean the water is safe in the Camp Fire area. Appropriate chemical testing must be conducted to determine if the water is safe. A water can smell funny for a lot of reasons. Some of the chemicals associated with the wildfire are impossible to smell at low levels, but at those low levels they can pose a health risk. For example, benzene cannot be smelled in drinking water unless it is 2,000 parts per billion (ppb), but poses a health risk at 1 ppb according to the State of California. The US Environmental Protection Agency claims benzene can pose a health risk at 5 ppb. Odor should not be used to assess drinking water safety instead of chemical testing.

No. There have been very significant chemical differences between buildings that are right next to one another. You should not rely on your neighbor’s data to help you know if your plumbing is okay. Every building will probably react differently to the chemicals (because they have different materials and flows), and different chemicals may be in buildings that are right next to one another (because they have different damage and use). See recommendations about water testing in buildings also.

You likely do not have enough information to make that claim. Do you use hot water or water from any other location in that building?

There has been no study to determine what chemicals are in buildings in the Camp Fire area or how to test for them in commercial or residential buildings.

  • Buildings are very complex and do not have the same water as WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS. Applying the same thinking to plumbing without understanding plumbing is inappropriate.
  • Does your water distribution system deliver hot water to you? No. Hot water has a completely different plumbing system.
  • The indoor water stagnation time, where and how the sample is collected in the buildings, what chemicals are looked for, how frequently samples are collected are critical questions that have not yet been answered.
  • Check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page.
  • It is our recommendation that a rapid project be conducted to figure out how to test potentially contaminated buildings. From that project, results can then be provided to all building owners.

I Need or Use an Alternate Water Supply

If you were in or near the Camp Fire area, we recommend that you test your well water for VOCs, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons called PAHs, as well as heavy metals, and bacteria. This is recommended by the Butte County Health Department. Once you conduct this test you should have an idea about whether or not it is contaminated. See recommendations about water testing in buildings also.

No. You must remain vigilant and require testing of that water being delivered. Contact the Butte County Health Department for advice about how to determine that the water you are receiving is safe. In other incidents we have been involved in sometimes water haulers collected and deliver contaminated water by mistake. You need to make certain they never do that. In one instance in Canada, that contaminated water was pumped into a home, the building had to be evacuated and plumbing completely replaced. Contact the Butte County Health Department for advice.

Additionally, consider having your water tested after it goes through your pipes in your building. Contaminants may have permeated into (gone into) plastics (water heater dip tube, gaskets, plastic pipes, etc.) and may or may not be a at a level where they can leach out (come out) of those materials into drinking water. Consider watching our Plumbing Safety video about it, and also check out our INTRODUCTION TO PLUMBING page. See the questions above under, "I have questions about the water in my building."

Water treatment systems are designed to treat a certain type of chemically contaminated water under certain conditions. No in-building water treatment systems have been certified solely to make water in the Camp Fire area safe. Some treatment systems have their products tested according to industry standards such as American National Standards Institute/ National Sanitation Foundation International (ANS/ NSFI) Standards. As of mid-February, the highest benzene level found in the Camp Fire area was 2,217 ppb concentration. In Santa Rosa, a 40,000 ppb benzene sample was found. Multiple other chemicals are present in the Camp Fire water systems, not just benzene. Available tests in the Camp Fire area do not represent the totality of what likely exists. The effectiveness of the in-building treatment system however will depend on what other chemicals are in the water. Some VOCs that have been found have health-based limits and should be monitored. This was mentioned above.

We have been contacted by several treatment device vendors. In-building water treatment devices may or may not be helpful. It is important several questions that must be answered first: (1) What chemically contaminated water did their treatment system become certified for? What chemical levels was it challenged again? (2) Can their system routinely remove 40,000 ppb benzene from contaminated drinking water along with other VOCs known to be present in Camp Fire area drinking water at equally high concentrations, at the same time, (3) How long will the system last before parts of it will need to be replaced because it will accumulate too much chemical? (4) How often will water testing of the system be conducted, who is conducting it, and what chemicals will they be looking for and why those chemicals, (5) If a device is only installed on one fixture (kitchen sink), is the rest of the plumbing such as that for the shower, bathroom, etc. considered unsafe?

If you plumbing has been contaminated, installing a whole house treatment device will not protect you from chemicals that, if present, leach from contaminated plumbing into safe water. However, installing a treatment device on every fixture including the water entering the building would seem to be overkill, if the plumbing isn’t contaminated. This is why we have advocated for a rapid project to help provide guidance to building owners and renters. These individuals are spending sometimes thousands of dollars to install treatment devices, and it is unclear if they are adequate or necessary.


Comparison of the Camp Fire Impact to the Tubbs Fire

Both the Tubbs Fire and Camp Fire were fires in populated areas. In both fires, drinking water systems and buildings were affected, but that’s really where the similarities end. In Santa Rosa, there were only 13 homes in the affected area that were left standing, and only 352 homes were affected. Only about 5 miles of the WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM was impacted. In contrast, for PID along all 172 miles of their WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM was affected. They had about 10,480 connections to customers and suspect less than 10% remain operational. Damage to Del Oro Water Company and private well systems has also occurred. The extent of aboveground and below ground damage was far less in Santa Rosa compared to Butte County. There were no private wells in Santa Rosa. There were no commercial buildings affected in Santa Rosa such as schools, restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, and offices. The scale of damage in Butte County vastly exceeds that which occurred in Santa Rosa. For that reason, we recommend not trying to directly compare the fires.

While benzene was found in Santa Rosa’s water system and has been found in some water systems in the Camp Fire area, the systems themselves are completely different. They have different amounts of plastics in their buried networks. They have different types and amounts of service lines such as plastic and metals (buried at different depths). They use different types of water meters (metal for Santa Rosa vs. plastic for PID). They have different water use frequencies. They have different types of buildings. There are many other important differences.

As more evidence becomes available we will continue to compare these incidents and evaluate how the emergency response and recovery can better adapt. Right now, there is not enough evidence for us to conclude the response to the Tubbs Fire water contamination should be exactly what is used for the Camp Fire. There are some clear similarities, but also significant differences.

Additional questions? Contact us at PlumbingSafety@purdue.edu.