The Hidden Danger of Wildfires


Photo Courtesy of: The New York Times

Wildfires have been surging in 2020 alongside of COVID-19, as there have been around 8,500 wildfires in California alone. Uncontrollable wildfires are devastating and can burn down thousands of acres over the course of a few days. Recently, the August Complex burned down millions of acres in California and lasted for a whole month before it was contained.

However, despite all of the devastation behind the wildfires themselves, researchers have found that there is another hidden terror behind these disasters: wildfires can easily contaminate the drinking water of communities.

When the fires spread they started to burn water pipes and water meters, which in turn leads to pieces of plastic being stuck in the pipes. Plastic pipes were shown to also have a tendency to absorb poisonous chemicals easily. The plastic melts and rehardens inside of the pipe not only leading to contaminated water, but also blocked pipes. Various Californian communities suffered due to the expensive cost of replacing all the pipes. When the emergency workers drew water from the hydrants, the contaminated water was spread.

There were also alarming amounts of benzene in the drinking water due to the concentration of ashes and burnt plastic in the air. Benzene is a poisonous chemical that causes excessive bleeding, nausea, and possibly cancer. Anyone who drinks water containing benzene could be harmed. Simply running a faucet could allow air contamination. In the 2020 San Lorenzo fire, 7.5 miles of plastic pipes were burned and poisonous concentrations of benzene were found in the community’s water system. The district manager at San Lorenzo Valley Water District was forced to issue a “do not drink, do not boil” order to keep residents safe.

Communities and scientists have started calling for federal laws that outline strict guidelines for water utility companies to follow. Scientists warn that if contaminated water is not contained, there would be serious public health and financial consequences. Places such as San Lorenzo have already started procuring emergency water supplies while they work to decontaminate their water systems.

Although this is a very stressful situation for many people, especially in California, researchers say that with the right protocols and laws in place, we can prevent most water contaminations and wildfires.