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Response and Recovery to Wildfire Caused Drinking Water Contamination

Wildfires can damage buried drinking water systems as well as building plumbing directly and indirectly, making them unsafe to use. Since 2017, a growing number of wildfires have prompted chemical drinking water contamination in Western US states. Levels found in some water systems have exceeded hazardous waste limits and posed an immediate exposure risk to the public. It is critical that emergency responders, health officials, water providers, insurance companies, and consultants understand the key public safety issues after wildfire. The resources below were compiled for communities to help those persons affected and entities involved in response and recovery take action.

Questions can be directed to Dr. Andrew Whelton at awhelton@purdue.edu.

This video helps prepare water utility, emergency management, municipal, and elected officials for water system damage scenarios. Wildfires can damage water distribution system infrastructure both physically –and– chemically. Some damage may not be visible. Hazardous waste scale drinking water chemical contamination can be caused. This presentation does not cover all situations, but instead provides an introduction for the viewer. More information and help can be obtained by contacting the author.

Wildfire Study 1: 2020, Wildfire caused widespread drinking water distribution network contamination. AWWA Water Science. Proctor et al.

Freely available online: https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183

Abstract: The Tubbs Fire (2017) and Camp Fire (2018) are the first known wildfires where widespread drinking water chemical contamination was discovered in the water distribution network and not in the source water after the fire. In both disasters, drinking water exceeded state and federal government‐defined exposure limits for several volatile organic compound (VOC) contaminants (e.g., benzene at 40,000 µg/L [Tubbs] and >2,217 µg/L [Camp]). This work outlines factors that influence wildfire‐induced drinking water quality threats based on the findings from these two fires and explores related scientific and policy issues. For example, certain plastics in the network may serve as a primary VOC source through in situ plastic pyrolysis. Depressurization of the distribution network likely transported contaminated water that subsequently contaminated undamaged infrastructure. As wildfires at the wildland–urban interface are likely to occur more frequently, greater scientific evidence is needed to guide agency responses that will better protect public health.

Wildfire Study 2: 2020, Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response. Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology. Isaacson et al.

Freely available online: https://doi.org/10.1039/D0EW00836B

Abstract: This study was conducted to determine if the thermal degradation of various plastic drinking water pipes (i.e., PEX, HDPE, PP, PVC, and CPVC) may be a source of drinking water contamination. Widespread volatile organic compound (VOC) contamination was found in water distribution systems following three wildfires in California. A potential source of this contamination was thought to be due to the degradation of plastic components in drinking water distribution systems. Eleven plastic drinking water pipes, across eight brands, were exposed to elevated temperatures (200 °C to 400 °C), and subsequently submerged in water or in n-hexane to observe the extent of VOC leaching. Results indicated that thermally damaged drinking water pipes can be sources of VOC leaching, with ten of the eleven materials leaching benzene, a carcinogen, into water. As exposure temperature increased, an increase in VOC leaching was observed in the polyethylene materials. Conversely, in the vinyl materials the significant mass loss associated with high exposure temperature was inversely proportional to the amount of BTEX leaching that was observed. Additional tentatively identified compounds (TICs), consisting primarily of aliphatic hydrocarbons, saturated ketones, or aromatic compounds, were found in the water (22 TICs) and n-hexane (134 TICs) leachate of burned plastics. This study has significant implications for both wildfire and structure fire recovery as plastic materials are increasingly being used in buried and building plumbing, and visual inspection is not a sufficient indicator of contamination risk.

Wildfire Study 3: 2021, Water safety attitudes, risk perception, experiences, and education for households impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire, California. Natural Hazards. Odimayomi et al.

Online: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-021-04714-9

Abstract: The 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California was the state’s most destructive wildfire in history, destroying more than 14,600 homes. The wildfire caused widespread drinking water system chemical contamination resulting in acute and chronic health risks, requiring water use restrictions. Six months after the fire, the research team conducted a rapid community survey of attitudes and experiences that were specific to building water safety. The validated surveys represented 233 households.  Amid the disaster response, 54% of the respondents self-reported that at least one member in their household had anxiety, stress, or depression directly related to the water contamination issues. Uncertainty about water and plumbing safety prompted respondents to alter water use in the home (83%), install in-home water treatment technologies (47%), and/or seek alternate water sources (85%). To provide affected households with answers to plumbing testing and safety questions, the research team designed and conducted a community education event. Many community members had technical questions about how to conduct water testing to determine if their plumbing was safe. The research team identified several significant public health information gaps and a need for clear recommendations. This work illustrates the advantages of community involvement for resolving ambiguities in how households can respond to water safety issues following a natural disaster. Further, the authors posit that strong community engagement in this context can reduce both psychological distress and exposure risks.

Building Water Essentials Course – Public Health: Self paced, 10 hour online short-course.

Info: https://engineering.purdue.edu/online/certifications/building-water-essentials

Summary: This course has CEUs. The Building Water Essentials course provides a baseline understanding of how building water systems are designed, how they operate and when problems arise, and how those problems can be resolved – information that is not readily available for public health officials (and others dealing with the issues) to access in a single package anywhere else. Topics include system components, codes, standards, water quality, flow, and the potential health risks, including water quality investigations and remediation.

Water Research Foundation backed study. Post-Wildfire Distribution System Water Quality Impacts and Potential Responses.

This study focusses on water utility decisions, helping determine the source(s) of post-wildfire contamination. The partner utilities include East Bay Municipal Utility District, (Oakland, Calif.), Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (Los Angeles, Calif.), Contra Costa Water District (Contra Costa, Calif.), San Jose Water Company (San Jose, Calif.). Other participating organizations include the City of Napa (Napa, Calif.), Portland Water Bureau (Portland, Oregon), Paradise Irrigation District (Paradise, Calif.)

Public Education Piece

Government Documents

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). Federal Insurance and Mitigation. December 2020. Replacing water systems that have been burned and have caused contamination. Washington, D.C. USA.

Freely available online: https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/fema_DRRA-1205-implementation-job-aid.pdf

"Wildfires generate intense heat that can adversely impact water system components both on the surface and underground. If intense heat modifies the chemical properties of water system components, chemicals might leach into the water, causing contamination. Infrastructure retrofits that reduce future risk to existing utility systems, including water systems, are eligible for HMA funding. The mitigation measures that are applied to the utility system can be multi-hazard to address more than just the hazard that caused the damage. Because HMA grants can be used to address undamaged portions of a utility system, they can be used to mitigate system components that have not been damaged but have properties like other systems that have sustained damage as well as undamaged portions of systems that have been partially damaged."