Water and fire have a complex relationship. On the one hand water can dominate fires by dousing flames.
On the other hand, fire can damage streams, water infrastructure, water quality – a range of calamity that recent western-state wildfires bring to the fore.
A recent Yale 360 report titled “How Wildfires are Polluting Rivers and Threatening Water Supplies” offers a clear and worrisome picture.
Forest fires, for all the good they can occasionally do for forest health, can damage drinking water systems in a number of ways, including destroying above-ground plastic pipes that, once they burn, can send benzene and other chemicals into streams. There’s the ash that can settle in drinking water reservoirs later to impair the operation of water treatment systems.
There’s also the damage that can come after fires have burned down waterside vegetation and caused floods that eventually overwhelm dams and other components of water systems.
This is relevant information even outside of western states. About 80 percent of freshwater supplies in the United States get their start on forested land. So, the devastating forest fires in West today provide a sobering caution about the fire-related effects of climate change on the safety and health of drinking water systems in other parts of the country.
The subject has been studied. For informed but disturbing reading on the subject, see “Climate Change, Forests, Fire, Water and Fish,” an extensive USDA report that was published in 2012.
In another study, USGS experts in 2016 turned up elevated levels of lead, nickel and zinc in southern California streams that they linked to a fire seven years earlier in a nearby national forest.
What can humans do about any of this? Well, using different kinds of pipes that carry water and being more careful about fires are two good precautions, but stopping climate change would provide far greater protection for us, our water systems, aquatic wildlife and the planet.