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The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.


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