News Feature | September 20, 2017

Northwest's Rampant Forest Fires Bring Water Quality Issues

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online

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Though hurricanes have been top-of-mind for many of those tracking natural catastrophes and their effects on water supplies, the recent scourge of wildfires in the Northwest has been wreaking havoc as well.

“Almost 2 million acres of land — an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined — are currently aflame,” Business Insider reported late last week. “There are more than 100 active wildfires and at least 41 uncontained large blazes, battled by more than 25,000 responders, the National Guard, and half a battalion of active-duty soldiers.”

But in addition to the loss of land, homes, and the danger to lives, these wildfires leave a serious risk to source water.

“Once the smoke clears, a more enduring problem will emerge,” reported The Progressive. “Forests play a large role in regulating climate change and rainfall patterns over land. They also act as filters for water consumed by hundreds of millions of people.”

And the removal of these natural filters may not be the worst of it for drinking water supplies.

“Once trees catch fire, they unleash ash, sediments and various noxious chemicals,” The Progressive report continued. “And heat from fires undermines soil stability. Then, when heavy rain fails, tainted water slides into rivers rather than seeping into underground aquifers. If it rains hard enough, flooding often follows, especially when there are no trees to take up what moisture is absorbed into the soil.”

Additionally, sediment from forest fires can block up water treatment plants, interfering with their disinfection process.

The Progressive cited the experience of Fort McMurray, in Canada, last year as an example of what can go wrong for drinking water following forest fires. This year, the city will probably have to spend two or three times as much on chemicals to treat drinking water.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Resiliency Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Forest Fire," Maciej Zyglarski © 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/