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Response and Recovery to Wildfire Caused Drinking Water Contamination

Wildfires can damage buried drinking water systems as well as private drinking water wells and building plumbing, making them unsafe to use. Since 2017, a growing number of wildfires have prompted chemical drinking water contamination in the United States. Levels found in some water systems have exceeded hazardous waste limits and posed an immediate health risk. To help households and building owners understand key wildfire drinking water contamination public safety issues, resources were compiled below. These resources will also be of interest to public health officials, water providers, municipalities, emergency management, insurance companies, nonprofit agencies, elected officials, and consultants. 

Resources for Households, Private Well Owners, and Public Health Officials

These 1 page information sheets provide households and public health officials considerations for water system, inspection, testing, and potential safe drinking water options when the plumbing is unsafe. These documents were developed based on firsthand experience investigating contamination after wildfire, building plumbing, sampling, decontamination, and advising local, county state, and federal agencies. Information in these documents is partly based on practices from several health departments who have responded to wildfire caused drinking water contamination disasters and also influenced by our firsthand experiences and testing.

Resources for Emergency Management, Water Utility, Public Health, and Elected Officials 

This video helps prepare 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 Center for Plumbing Safety.

 

Public utilities and municipalities can seek reimbursement for the expenses associated with natural disaster response and recovery under certain conditions. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA issued a policy in 2020 specific to wildfire caused water system contamination. 

  • FEMA. 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."
  • Public entities should become familiar with FEMA's hazard mitigation assistance (HMA).

Other Information and Resources

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

  • 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. This course is 1 CEU and can be accessed here: https://engineering.purdue.edu/online/certifications/building-water-essentials

Public Summaries about Wildfire Water Contamination Studies

Peer-Reviewed Scientific Studies about Wildfires, Water Contamination, and Plumbing Repair

  • 2020, Wildfire caused widespread drinking water distribution network contamination. AWWA Water Science. Freely available online: https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183. This study describes lessons from the Tubbs Fire (2017) and Camp Fire (2018) 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. 

  • 2020, Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response. Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology. Freely available online: https://doi.org/10.1039/D0EW00836B. This study discovered that heating of various plastic drinking water pipes (i.e., PEX, HDPE, PP, PVC, and CPVC) can be a source of drinking water contamination.

  • 2021, Water safety attitudes, risk perception, experiences, and education for households impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire, California. Natural Hazards. Online: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-021-04714-9. This study describes household and public health lessons from the 2018 Camp Fire, California's most destructive wildfire in history. A survey was conducted to understand how the needs and questions of households affected who were faced with the delivery of contaminated water and plumbing for more than 6 months.