Do Wildfires Affect Drinking Water?

Wondering if wildfires are waging war on your water?

The devastating truth is these red-hot infernos have an immediate — and long-lasting — impact on water supplies and quality.

That’s not to say you’re sipping ash every time you take a swig. But if you’re already concerned about your tap water (like we are), wildfires are alarming. 

Before we dive in, let’s make something abundantly clear: Our hearts go out to all of those impacted by these common crises. While clean water is always top of mind for us, we’d first like to offer our condolences to those who have lost their lives, family, friends, pets, possessions, homes, and more to these tragic events. 

When tuning in on your TV or thumbing through your phone, you’re quick to see the destruction these fires cook up. But even if you’re not in harm’s way, wildfires can impact your water, and in turn your health, now and years later...

Wildfires Target Our Water Supplies

With the slight turn, twist, or pull of a handle, we expect clean water to flow like magic. And in some cases, it does. But what if the source of that water is up in flames? Whether you know it or not, when fires attack our forests, they also attack our water supplies. 

The majority of the U.S.'s freshwater resources originate on forested land where watersheds and reservoirs are abundant. Think about this: Nearly two-thirds of the municipalities in the U.S. and many of the world’s largest cities pull drinking water from forested areas. Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Melbourne are just a few on the list. Hits a little close to home, doesn’t it? Point being: When wildfires attack their favorite target, forests, we’re all at risk.

Water Treatment Is Volatile

Logic tells us contaminated water supplies require treatment in order for us to drink from them. The scary truth is treatment isn’t a perfect science (a quick Google search supports this claim). In fact, some would argue it’s unpredictable on a good day. And compounding the problem is that treatment can be code for more chemicals being dumped into your water as processes are adjusted to neutralize new, unique, and emerging hazards. Either way, it’s a murky outlook as water can be unsafe to use and unsafe to treat during and after fires.

With our water supplies at risk and treatment untrustworthy, where do we turn? Do you drink up and hope for the best? As water filtration experts, are we just yanking your chain to push some product? We’ll let you be the judge. Let’s take a look at exactly what happens to our water both during the fires — and years later...

The Immediate Impact

During active fires, ash, chemicals, and contaminants make their way into and around the streams, lakes, and reservoirs that supply our water.

And let’s not forget, these fires are often accompanied by rainstorms. This one-two punch of problems only makes matters worse as the rain water shuttles sediment, contaminants, dissolved organic matter, and debris right into surrounding bodies of water. As we battle back, firefighting can actually accelerate the spread of contamination while introducing fire retardant into the mix. You get the idea. In the blink of an eye, our water supplies can be rife with chemicals, contaminants, and pollutants. 

But that’s not all: While fires are catalysts for releasing sediment, heavy metals, and other contaminants into water, they’re also leaving behind chemicals as they torch hydrants,  meter boxes,  pipes, and just about anything else standing in their way. Melted plastic from pipelines hidden underground and inside structures can pollute the water that flows through. Lenient building codes and limited testing only enhance the problem. Just like that, more potential hazards — some that can cause immediate physical harm — are added to the list. And sipping on tap water isn’t the only way we’re at risk. Some contaminants and chemicals can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin just by running polluted water. 

So what do all these concerns equate to? At best, changes to the color, taste, and smell of your water. However, don’t use/don’t drink and boil water notices aren’t out of the question. Nor are cancer-causing health hazards and other dangers that have yet to be fully understood or detected. 

Here’s a breakdown of the almost-immediate impact wildfires have on our drinking water:

  • Changes in color, taste, and smell.
  • Build up of ashsoilsoot,  and debris.
  • Notable levels of sediment and heavy metals.
  • Chemicals from melted plastics, pipes, and structures.
  • Hazards from burning vegetation. 
  • Dissolved organic carbons that could have the potential to turn into carcinogens.
  • Chemicals that evaporate into the air and cause diarrhea,  nausea,  and cancer.
  • Don’t use/don’t drink, boil water advisories.

Whether fires are contained or not, the future of our water can be cloudy. Let’s double-click on the lasting impact wildfires have on water...

The Lasting Damage

Years after a fire in Colorado, it was estimated that the majority of the sediment mobilized by post-fire erosion “would likely persist” for more than 300 years. That’s several lifetimes for most of us. The same publication revealed that a post-fire rain storm in Australia poured sediment into water that elevated concentrations of arsenic, iron, lead, and chromium above WHO guidelines. And the fallout from a 2018 fire in Northern California uncovered water pipes containing “unsafe levels” of cancer-causing chemicals 10 months later. We share these stories to say this: Fires can affect our water for years — if not centuries — after they’ve been contained. 

From ongoing rainfall flowing seemingly endless supplies of sediment into watersheds to runoff, erosion, and mudslides filling our cups with contaminants and debris, our water isn’t safe in the aftermath. Burned areas are brimming with charred vegetation and piles of waste, erosion is a recipe for almost instant pollution, and without trees, vegetation, and stable soil, rain can flush all kinds of potential hazards right into watersheds and reservoirs. And those are just some of the dangers we know of. It’s reasonable to think there’s more out there that haven’t been detected, studied, or shared.

All of these things can impact water quality, hinder treatment processes, promote harmful algal blooms; and in severe cases, diminish the lifespan of reservoirs. Furthermore, they come with health risks that can impact everyone from babies to seniors.

Here are ongoing water-related concerns following wildfires:

  • Supplies brimming with organic carbon, heavy metals, and other contaminants.
  • Rise in soil and water chemicals like phosphate, nitrate, and nitrite. 
  • Sludge and sediment making its way to your tap.
  • Elevation of contaminants and chemicals following rainfall.
  • Harmful algae blooms in reservoirs.
  • Presence of cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and methylene chloride.
  • Ongoing soil erosion and water pollution.
  • Fluctuations in color, taste, and smell.
  • The need for secondary sources of lower-quality water.

While many of the immediate and lasting effects overlap, the long-term impact is often forgotten by the general public or left unaddressed by experts. In some cases, experts don’t even know what to look for. Just because there are no advisories or immediate dangers and fires are long gone, doesn’t mean your water is as safe as you’d like it to be.

There Are Overwhelming Variables

Every fire is different, as is its impact. Intensity, weather, climate, landscape, geography, topography, and more all play a part in how wildfires directly and indirectly affect drinking water. It’s no secret that each and every fire is a learning experience; and we aren’t always armed with the expertise to fully understand their impact on water sources and treatment. 

Even today, confusion about the effect wildfires have on drinking water is surprisingly common. And things like climate change, droughts, and man-made pollutants add new layers that we aren’t fully prepared for. In short, we know the threat and are familiar with common outcomes. But given the volume of variables, it seems we might just be scratching the surface on both our understanding and our ability to protect our water.

How to Protect Yourself

Wildfires are unpredictable. Your water quality shouldn’t be. Your local authorities are responsible for notifying you should your water be considered unsafe. But that doesn’t mean “safe” is safe enough. Even today, controversy is common following wildfires. There’s reason to believe our regulators and utility companies aren’t doing enough to protect us from contaminated water, laws around contamination are in question, and confusion around the impact is rampant. 

Your best bet is to filter your tap water before you drink up, shower up, or wash up. In our opinion, it can only help. An investment in a premium filtration system is an investment in your health, your future, and your peace of mind. Check out our full line of advanced filtration systems complete with our cutting-edge affinity filtration technology here

What's the difference between Aquagear and Clearly Filtered?
What's the difference between Aquagear and Clearly Filtered?
  The Pitcher: Aquagear’s Filtered Water Pitcher filter is made in the USA and is a non-premium 100% BPA-free...
Is lead in drinking water at schools?
Is lead in drinking water at schools?
Lead is a toxic heavy metal used in batteries and construction materials. Historically, lead was also used in paint,...
Why are kids more prone to dehydration and how you can help
Why are kids more prone to dehydration and how you can help
Dehydration can happen to everyone, but the unfortunate truth is kids are more prone to dehydration. Why is that? Children...