Camp Fire Destruction Leaves Behind Contaminated Streams and Surface Waters

By on January 23, 2019

The destruction of homes, businesses and property that occurred during the 2018 Camp Fire has left a secondary blight on the heavily burned community. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB), in coordination with Butte County, the California Department of Water Resources, and the California Department of Transportation conducted targeted sampling of surface waters at various locations throughout the Camp Fire burn area and downstream of the burn area last week. They determined that bacteria and other contaminants found in water samples exceed water quality standards for drinking water.

State water quality officials have cautioned the public not to drink or cook with untreated surface water from streams throughout the Camp Fire burn area. Laboratory analyses of surface water samples found concentrations of bacteria (Escherichia coli, a.k.a. E. Coli), aluminum, antimony and some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that exceeded drinking water quality standards.

“Given the fire’s devastating impacts, the results aren’t surprising, and in fact are lower than expected,” said Clint Snyder, Central Valley Water Board assistant executive officer (AEO). “People in this region should not drink or use these untreated surface waters for any cooking.”

Also of concern were local residents who rely on shallow wells along Butte Creek. Although these surface waters are not a source of drinking water for homes, creek water could seep into the private wells. Home owners with shallow wells along Butte Creek have been encouraged to review their well construction details and consider having their well water tested.

Although the state’s testing found the elevated levels of aluminum, antimony and iron as well as PAHs these contaminants are also naturally occurring. Additional data is required to determine if the concentrations detected during January’s sampling are representative of post-fire surface water quality in the burn area. The CVRWQCB and its fellow agencies will continue to monitor surface waters throughout the winter and spring. Updates for the public regarding these monitoring efforts will be made available as results become available.

Butte Creek home owners with shallow wells should visit to download the Private Well Safety and Testing guidance or call the Butte County Environmental Health Division at (530) 552-3880 for more information.

Residents, property owners and business owners can ask questions and seek additional information regarding the quality of the drinking water supplied by their public water system by directly contacting their local water provider or by contacting the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water at 530-224-4800.