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Replanting Concerns

Water Quality Concerns from Wildfire

From the Arizona Dept. of Environmental Quality

The water quality consequences of wildfire may produce significant and immediate impacts on fish and other aquatic organisms, drinking water supplies and wastewater treatment systems. These impacts are cumulative as a result of pollutants mobilized by the fire, chemicals used to fight the fire and the post-fire response of the landscape. ADEQ has developed both short-term and long-term strategies to respond to water quality issues arising from wildfires such as the recent Wallow Fire in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona.

Drinking Water Concerns

I GET MY DRINKING WATER FROM A PRIVATE WELL. HOW DO I KNOW IT’S SAFE TO DRINK?

If you have your own domestic/private well that is used to supply drinking water to your household and your property is located within an area burned by wildfire, you should follow the advice contained in the ADEQ brochure entitled Private Wells After the Fire . This brochure also is available by contacting any of the ADEQ offices at the phone numbers listed at the end of this FAQ sheet.

IS IT OK FOR ME TO TAKE A SHOWER AND FLUSH MY TOILET BEFORE I HEAR THE WATER AND SYSTEM ARE OK?

Yes, it is reasonably safe for you to take a shower.

However, care should be taken to minimize ingesting water by mouth. You may flush your toilets with the water coming into your home.

CAN I USE THE WATER IN MY HOUSEHOLD TO WASH DISHES BY HAND OR IN THE DISHWASHER BEFORE I HEAR THAT THE WATER AND SYSTEM ARE OK?

No, it is not advisable to wash dishes or other food utensils with the water coming into your house until you have received notification from ADEQ that your water is safe to drink. If you have dishes or cooking utensils that need to be washed, you should use either bottled or boiled water.

CAN MY PET DRINK THE WATER COMING INTO MY HOUSEHOLD BEFORE I HEAR THAT THE WATER AND SYSTEM ARE OK?

Generally, the amount of bacteria that can safely be consumed by common household pets is much higher than it is for humans. However, you may wish to consult your veterinarian for additional pet-related questions.

Wastewater Concerns

DID THE FIRE AFFECT MY SEPTIC SYSTEM?

Most of the areas hit hardest by the recent fires use on-site (septic) systems for wastewater treatment and disposal. Fire will likely have little effect on septic systems since they are usually several feet underground. It is possible that firefighting activities, such as the digging of fire breaks or the use of heavy equipment, might damage some systems. When you are allowed to return to your home or business, check the area around your septic system for signs of damage. Both ADEQ and the county environmental health department will work with homeowners and businesses to ensure that these on-site disposal systems are operating properly.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I SEE SEWAGE ON THE SURFACE?

First, try to limit access to the area – especially by children and pets. Next, carefully disinfect the area with chlorine. Lastly, contact either ADEQ or your county environmental health department for assistance in evaluating the condition of your wastewater treatment system.

Water Quality Concerns

IS THERE ANY DANGER FROM THE SMOKE AND ASH TO FISH AND WILDLIFE?

The primary impacts to fish and wildlife will be from runoff entering streams and lakes from areas destroyed by the fire. The runoff may carry extra sediment and ash, which can kill fish by robbing the streams of oxygen. Fires also release pollutants that are normally found in soil and in living and decaying plants that are washed into streams and lakes either through runoff or transported through the air.

WHAT EFFECT WILL THE FIRE (ASH AND SMOKE) HAVE ON THE LAKES AND STREAMS?

After a fire there are concerns about streams flooding when burned areas receive heavy rainfall.

Vegetation and forest litter that once slowed runoff are gone. This means an increased amount of sediment and ash will end up in the water. Once the fire is contained, ADEQ will work with the Forest Service and other federal agencies to conduct water quality sampling on area streams and lakes to determine the immediate impacts from the fire. Our initial focus will be on perennial streams and lakes that serve as drinking-water sources for local communities. We will also develop a long-term strategy to study the impacts of the fire on water quality and to monitor the recovery of the surface waters as well as the health of fish and wildlife.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN IT DOES RAIN?

Some of the biggest concerns after a fire are erosion, landslides and flooding in areas where the vegetation that once stabilized the soil has been destroyed by fire. ADEQ will be working with the Forest Service and other state and federal agencies to assess the conditions and stability of the watersheds and to implement measures to reduce the immediate harmful impacts of landslides, flooding, water pollution and other hazards.

IS THERE ANY DANGER TO HUMANS OR ANIMALS FROM THE FIRE RETARDANTS?

Fire retardants are fire- suppression chemicals used to slow or smother wildfires. Most of ingredients in these products are common chemicals found in fertilizers (ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus), household cleansers, soaps, cosmetics and paints.

Generally, exposure to the retardants results in minimal problems for humans. The usual complaints are of mild skin and eye irritation. These chemicals also have minimal effects on wildlife, vegetation and soils.

IS THERE ANY DANGER TO FISH OR THE LAKES AND STREAMS FROM THE FIRE RETARDANTS?

The firefighting chemicals can have adverse impacts on water quality and ultimately on fish and other aquatic life. The retardants can cause fish kills if applied directly over lakes and streams. This is because ammonia nitrogen is in many of the retardants and ammonia is very toxic to fish. Retardants may also contain large quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus which if flushed into a stream or lake can use up all the oxygen in the water body. If the retardant has not been sprayed directly over lakes and streams, the possibility of runoff will depend largely on the amount of rainfall, the steepness of the terrain, and the size of the receiving stream or lake.