Office of Research and Sponsored Programs

Chico State Researchers Awarded NSF Rapid Grant to Study Watershed Contamination Following Camp Fire

silhouette of firefighter in front of blaze

Chico team is leading a collaborative research project that will characterize the effects of watershed burning in a wildland-urban interface to assess the presence of contaminants, and their fate and transport.

The research will broadly characterize the effects of watershed burning in a wildland-urban interface (WUI) on water quality through the first water year post fire. The interdisciplinary project is being lead by CSU, Chico principal investigators Jackson Webster (Department of Civil Engineering) and Sandrine Matiasek (Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences), in collaboration with investigators from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clemson University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Washington.

The team is responding to the Camp Fire (November 2018), the most destructive wildfire in California’s history (15,000 structures burnt). The number of homes burned, and the upper-watershed settings makes this event unique. There is concern that overland flow and ash from burned urban and suburban homes, cars, and other buildings can transport toxic metals (e.g., Al, As, Cd, Cr, Cu, Hg, Ni, Pb, Sn, Zn), EPA-regulated toxic organic chemicals (e.g. PAHs, PCBs, PBBs, brominated fire retardants, dioxins) and other contaminants of concern into the surrounding waterways and water supplies. Due to its unprecedented extent of urban burning, this fire may present a new type of watershed contamination.

The burned watershed drains directly into Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in California’s State Water Project, which provides drinking water and irrigation supply to millions of downstream users. Butte Creek also hosts the last stable Chinook spring run Salmon population in CA. Because the fire occurred late in the fall, precipitation occurred prior to emergency clean up and erosion has already mobilized fire debris into downstream creeks and reservoirs. The intellectual merits of the study address two serious concerns:

1) How does burning, ash deposition, and rainfall influence contaminant levels within the urban area and in downstream waters?

2) Will contaminants persist for one water-year post-fire, and are there continued human and aquatic health risks associated with contaminant mobilization into surrounding surface waters?

Long term trends suggest continued increases in wildfire occurrence in the western U.S. and this study will help to identify contaminants that may not have been closely examined following previous wildfire.

The broader impacts of this study include:

1) Increased understanding of post-fire contaminant fate and transport following WUI wildfire

2) An assessment of the water-year persistence of multiple contaminants within a WUI watershed following burning 

The results of this study will be a source of information for downstream water users following future wildfires. Further, we anticipate that this work will identify additional key questions and help guide future research in the area of post-wildfire water quality.

Map outline of California with locations starred at points involved in the research.