Wildfire, climate change push toxic chemicals into drinking wells | Environment

PORTLAND — Don Myron is probably best known as the guy who survived one of the deadliest fires in Oregon’s history by sheltering overnight in a river with a patio chair. So there was never any question that Myron would rebuild his home in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon after the house was destroyed in the Labor Day wildfires of 2020.

The well Myron shared with nearby homeowners was no longer available, which meant one of his first tasks was to drill his own new source for drinking water.

“It’s hard to rebuild without water,” Myron said. “It’s hard to do anything without water. It was a priority.”

But with climate change confronting communities across the West, people who rely on wells are at a particular risk as wildfires grow in intensity and frequency. Without vegetation, fire-scarred land becomes more susceptible to mudslides that can damage watersheds. Drought can increase the concentration of pathogens and other contaminants in well water. And fires can damage the well equipment and piping, leaching toxic chemicals into drinking water and forcing property owners to consider costly repairs, upgrades and filtering systems even as they rebuild their homes and businesses. Beyond the West, heavier rains and floods threaten well water quality, too.

In Oregon, about a quarter of state residents rely on private wells for their water supply, according to the Oregon Health Authority. An estimated 2,000 households that rely on private wells were affected by the Labor Day fires of 2020, which — fueled by severe windstorms — rank among the largest and deadliest fires ever experienced in the state. In response, the state established a free voucher program that pays for people affected by the Labor Day fires to test their well water for some contaminants.

Once Myron’s well was drilled and operational, he used the voucher to have the water tested. It was “as clean as could be,” Myron said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”


Such testing is common in Western states. After the 2018 Camp Fire nearly destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, the Butte County Health Department warned residents that creeks and rivers flowing from fire-affected areas could contain elevated levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, a carcinogen, and lead, a neurotoxin; The fires damaged municipal systems and an estimated 2,438 private wells in what is, for now, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

The county also alerted property owners that contaminants could seep into the aquifers tapped by private wells. Butte County not only warned people to test for contaminants, but also advised them to drink pricey bottled water until they knew the full extent of the fire damage to their wells.

If a fire burned or damaged the casing or plumbing around a well, officials, such breaches could cause bacterial growth, including E. coli, which can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Heat damage from the fires also can compromise the plastic components of wells, potentially leaching dangerous chemicals into drinking water.

Many of the fire-scarred communities of the West are now using guidelines developed in part by researcher Andrew Whelton, an engineering professor at Purdue University and director of the school’s Center for Plumbing Safety. Whelton studies water safety after wildfires, most recently after the Marshall Fire in suburban Boulder, Colorado.

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