Unsafe to drink: Wildfires threaten rural California towns with tainted water
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The month-long wait for results of testing left Petrini and his neighbors in a frustrated limbo, forced to rely upon bottled water distributed by the county. At the end of September, testing in Berryessa Highlands finally revealed no detectable amounts of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. One block — ironically on Clearwater Court — had elevated levels of metals including lead in one hydrant, so residents are still advised not to drink their water.
“If the water is messed up, we understand. We had a catastrophic fire up here, we understand that. But just let us know why,” Petrini said. “Is it even okay for us to bathe our baby in?”
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.
The problems now encountered in California are far beyond the scope of regulations protecting drinking water, said Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water.
“The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t have a clause like, ‘This is what you do in a fire when a community is completely burned to the ground,’” he said.
‘We’re going to see more systems like this’
There are 23 major wildfires burning in a record-breaking season that has torn through more than 4 million acres of California, killing 31 people and destroying more than 8,400 structures.
Since the 1980s, climate change has more than doubled the hot and dry conditions that combine to create extreme fire weather, according to new research.
At the same time, more Californians are in harm’s way: between 1990 and 2010, the number of houses built at the edge of nature increased by more than a third. And 640,000 to 1.2 million new homes could pop up in the state’s highest fire risk areas by 2050.
That means more fire survivors could come home to find their pipes burned and their water undrinkable.
“It’s safe to bet that with this year’s fire season the way it is, winds picking up and the magnitude of fire that we’ve got, we’re going to see more (water) systems like this,” said Daniel Newton, assistant deputy director of the state water board’s Division of Drinking Water. “The number of fire impacts I am starting to hear throughout the state is staggering,” he added.