After California’s deadliest fire, when is it safe to drink the water?

Published on
October 23, 2019

Is it safe to drink the water?

Last November, the Camp Fire roared through Butte County, where I live and work, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate with nearly no warning, and leveling 90% of the town of Paradise — in addition to large swaths of other nearby communities. It was the deadliest — 85 people died in the fire alone — and most destructive wildfire in California history.

There were many things about the Camp Fire that made it unique, one of them being that it wasn’t really a “wildfire,” though it was sparked in a rural, heavily forested area. Much like the Tubbs Fire that hit Wine Country the year before, it was largely urban in nature. That means it didn’t just ignite trees and brush — it engulfed homes, gas stations, vehicles, photo labs, and all manner of toxic materials that are not meant to be burned.

My newspaper, the Chico News & Review, an alternative weekly covering Butte County and our neighboring communities, has had boots on the ground since Nov. 9, the day after the fire broke out. Several of my co-workers were evacuated; some lost their homes.

Naturally, we’ve been covering many aspects of the aftermath of the fire. One of my focuses has been the public water system in the burn scar. In December, when people started to be allowed to return to their homes — if they were standing — benzene was discovered in the water supply. A known carcinogen, benzene is considered dangerous for drinking by the state of California in amounts over one part per billion. In one spot, it reached over 2,000 parts per billion.

Engineers have determined that the intensity of the fire melted the plastic piping and water meters that make up portions of the infrastructure. Depressurization of the system exacerbated the problem. So, there’s been extensive testing to determine where the contamination is and whether — and how — it is spreading throughout the water system. This has resulted in a large amount of data, compiled by many different sources and in varying formats.

With help from the 2019 Data Fellowship, I hope to dive deeper into the extent of the problem and the reaction to it. Are state standard and guidelines adequately protecting the health of residents affected? Has testing been done properly and results communicated clearly? I’ve already collected a ton of information, from test results to communications through public records requests.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, the implications become more serious. While many people living in the burn scar have avoided drinking, cooking with and bathing in the water, others have not. How many of them have experienced adverse health effects attributable to the contamination? Did public officials respond adequately with warnings, based on the scientific data and research available?

I hope to compare test result compiled by a variety of sources, including the state water board, local water providers and individual homeowners. In addition to investigating standards and protocols, I hope to tell people’s stories. Do they feel safe drinking their water in their homes? Have they felt communication has been adequate? Have they had their water tested — and why, or why not? And what did they test for — were guidelines standard? Have they experienced any adverse health effects?

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, journalists from around the country, even the world, flocked to Butte County. As I drove around the burned region, taking photographs, talking with first responders and checking on the status of literally dozens of friends’ homes, I encountered many of them. They covered myriad aspects of the fire and told many compelling, important stories. But when the flames were put out and other issues demanded their attention, they returned to their homes, their jobs done.

For the CN&R, however, life has yet to return to normal. Our community is still healing, still reeling from this disaster. My newspaper was founded in 1977 and its roots run deep. Our readers trust us to tell the important stories that other news outlets do not. For the health and well-being of our friends, neighbors, family members and everyone else who lives, works, plays or goes to school in the burn scar, this matter is urgent. And it has the potential, I believe, to serve those living in areas affected by future catastrophic fires.