Lessons Learned from Recent Fires

The wildfires that continue to ravage the American West Coast have brought a new water-quality crisis to light. Building practices once considered sound and code-compliant now threaten whole communities, contaminating water with toxic contaminants, chemicals and carcinogens into local water supplies when fires damage and destroy piping materials. The cities of Santa Rosa and Paradise, California, demonstrate the dangers of using less resilient materials that can melt.

Santa Rosa, California

In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned over 36,000 acres, destroyed more than 5,500 structures, and severely damaged the city of Santa Rosa. Among the many awful consequences of the blaze, the city and its residents faced a new challenge: water contaminated by benzene, a hydrocarbon most commonly found in oil, gasoline and plastic. In some instances, benzene contamination in Santa Rosa reached 25, 100 or even 500 parts-per-billion (ppb). According to the American Cancer Society , benzene is an established human carcinogen; it’s regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at a maximum contaminant level of just 5ppb.

The Press Democrat published an extensive investigation by the city and its water department that determined it was damage to water infrastructure that caused the contamination: “… the benzene and other hydrocarbons detected in the water system in the advisory area originated when plastic components from the system melted during the fires.” The water department further found the melted plastic piping “…Allowed a combination of benzene, superheated air, ash and debris to enter the water main delivery pipes at some point during and after the fire.”

While the burned area only covered roughly five percent of the water system , the contamination spread over several miles . The carcinogens have since dispersed across the city through the water network, poisoning the water of homes unaffected by the blaze itself.

After an 11-month ban, health officials finally cleared the water for drinking and bathing in October of 2018. As the city works to upgrade to new copper piping and 250,000 gallons of fresh water are used to flush the system every week, officials hope the federal government will cover the $8 million repair cost.

Paradise, California

Nearly a year after Santa Rosa, the highly publicized Camp Fire torched more than 153,000 acres, destroyed over 18,000 structures and claimed several lives. The city of Paradise, which was almost completely destroyed, was among the most affected areas.

In addition to causing extensive structural damage, the fire seriously damaged the city’s underground water supply as plastic pipes melted, releasing benzene throughout the system. According to ERN California , the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes used throughout compromising the entire system irreparably. The Paradise Irrigation District estimates it will take at least 2.5 years before the water is potable again . Contamination testing found 30 percent of samples contained an average benzene level of 31 ppb, an amount Dan Newton, a member of the state Water Resources Control Board, described as “jaw-dropping.” As the city searches for a solution, estimates for replacing the water network go as high as $300 million , an amount the city cannot possibly muster with the majority of its residents dispersed.

Plumbers, Firefighters Take Action

Concurrently with these disasters, similar concerns about the release of toxic substances from burning plastic pipes and other materials have arisen. In 2019, the United Association ( UA ) and the International Association of Fire Fighters ( IAFF ) called for a ban on plastic piping. Both groups raised alarms about a spike in cancer rates among fire fighters, citing concerns about toxins emitted by burning plastic. The UA and IAFF have called for plastic pipes to be prohibited from use in critical care centers , buildings taller than two stories, and other buildings where it’s difficult for occupants to escape, such as hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and schools.

“Just as firefighters have always been there to protect us in emergencies, the plumbers and pipefitters have been quietly and successfully protecting the health and safety of the nation for almost 100 years,” UA general president Mark McManus said in a press release distributed by IAFF. “There are plenty of safe, sustainable and recyclable materials available today that don’t pose health risks to workers or the public. This initiative is about choosing the safest and most durable option in product selection.”

Preparing for the Next Fire

In midsummer 2019, there were 1,521 active wildfires in the United States , making it likely another Tubbs or Camp Fire tragedy will occur in the near future. The plumbing industry must take immediate action and work with municipalities in risk zones to minimize the potential for post-fire contamination. As towns, cities and lives are destroyed by fires, survivors shouldn’t be left without the basic human necessity of drinking water.

Jackson Webster , an environmental engineering specializing in the effects of wildfires on water quality, makes the case in clear terms: “This is really just the beginning here. The fires in Santa Rosa caught people by surprise. Now, it has happened twice. The bells are ringing.”

The author, Andrew G. Kireta Jr., vice president of the Copper Development Association Inc. (CDA), is responsible for the use of copper and copper alloy systems and products in building construction and sustainable energy applications. This includes the areas of piping and mechanical systems as well as interior and exterior architectural applications. 

Andy has been active in the development and promotion of copper and copper alloy systems in building construction for CDA since 1992.