Center for Urban Waters Examining Camp Fire Runoff

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A consortium of universities including UW Tacoma is hoping to learn what kinds of pollutants are emitted from communities affected by catastrophic wildfires.

At UW Tacoma's Center for Urban Waters, Nina Zhao works with samples of water runoff from areas burned by the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California. Zhao is a Ph.D. student at UW's College of Engineering.

UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters is part of a consortium of universities, led by Dr. Jackson Webster at California State University Chico, that is helping to monitor water quality changes in the wake of the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

The Camp Fire burned more than 150,000 acres, destroyed almost 19,000 structures, and caused at least 88 fatalities. Recovery and clean-up will be one of the largest and most complex such operations in the U.S.

The loss of human life was tragic. The fire’s intensity and path through areas at the borders between wildland and urban areas contributed to its impact. The many residences and businesses — containing everything from automobiles to vinyl patio furniture — that were consumed by the flames, and the subsequent firefighting efforts, released large amounts of chemical contamination into the air, land and water.

Dr. Ed Kolodziej is coordinating the work of the Center for Urban Waters on the stormwater runoff analysis. “We do not have a good idea about how these catastrophic wildfires impact water quality,” said Kolodziej. “Some of these watersheds are important drinking water sources, and we need to understand what hazardous substances might migrate into drinking water supplies, or affect the health of first responders or returning community members.”

Kolodziej said the Center is participating in the study because it can provide specialized equipment and expertise that enables the detection and identification of unknown contaminants in water. Instead of testing for the presence of one pollutant at a time, the Center’s equipment can simultaneously detect and identify hundreds or thousands of chemicals in the water. Researchers can then manage the most toxic or hazardous chemicals.

“One of the outcomes we hope to see from this work,” said Kolodziej, “is to improve the knowledge of what kinds of chemicals and toxicants are emitted from communities in a catastrophic wildfire, and what happens to those substances as they travel through the environment.”

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / December 4, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or