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What to Do After Wildfires

By Terry Arko

No words can adequately express the condolences felt for those who have suffered loss during the recent wildfires in California and the Northwest United States. In the case of active fires, the utmost concern should always be for the immediate safety of people and property first. The devastation of wildfires this year has been particularly extreme. The following is some advice for pool professionals dealing with the restoration and repair of swimming pools after a wildfire.

During the Fire

Water pressure and water quality at the source will be affected during and after times of wildfires. For residents trying to protect their property, using the hose may not always be effective. In some cases where water pressure becomes an issue during the fire, some fire departments may incorporate pumps in the pool to use the water for protecting homes. Homeowners in wildfire areas can also buy pumps that can soak down their property. These pumps can typically work at a flow of 150 gpm and can disperse the contents of a 20,000-gallon pool within two hours. Pool techs should be aware ahead of time of this possibility and should check that hydrostatic relief valves are in place on these pools to prevent the pool vessels from popping out of the ground during these emergency use times. If there is a high groundwater table or the pool is built over an underground spring, this could be a very real possibility.

All types of debris are possible during times of wildfires as result of potential high winds. Smoke, ash, tree branches, leaves and fire suppressant chemicals will all most likely end up in the pool.

There is the possibility that live animals may seek shelter in the water or pool area. Do not attempt to deal with live wild animals on your own. Immediately contact your local animal control or wildlife management officials.

Use extreme caution in and around areas where wildfires are still active. Protective gear such as respiratory mask, goggles and gloves may be required in these situations. It is prudent to carry some emergency supplies at all times. This could include bottled water, safety flares, a protective non-flammable blanket, a battery-powered radio and flashlight. In addition, it is vital to comply with the emergency management in the area. Avoid areas of heavy smoke where emergency crews are setup.

Service companies should never attempt to cross an emergency barrier or evacuation zone to deal with pools. Fire can change course and move rapidly especially in areas of high winds. If your route is anywhere near where fires are, make sure to have several planned escape routes thought out ahead of time. Smoke and ash can be a problem for miles beyond the fire. In the summer of 2017, smoke from the fires in British Columbia spread all the way down to the Seattle area. The airborne ash and debris affected many pools in the area. Some of the pools developed filter problems and bouts of algae.

After the Fire

Great care should be taken when undertaking the task of cleanup after a fire. Be aware of live downed power lines. In many cases in fire-damaged properties, the fire department will turn off the power. This is done because wires may have melted or been fused from the heat. Be sure to check with the fire department before attempting to turn pump and filter breakers back on. Only a licensed electrical contractor should determine the integrity of the breakers for the pumps.

Swimming pools in fire areas will contain ash, debris, firefighting chemicals and toxins. It is best when allowable to drain and refill the pool. Inspect the integrity of the pool walls, plaster, pipe fittings, decking and surrounding landscape. The components of smoke from fire can cause severe lasting damage to equipment and structures. In addition, the chemistry of the pool will be adversely effected. Smoke is corrosive and oxidative. It will cause severe damage wherever it has settled. If equipment and decking are covered in ash and smoke, continue to use caution. Wear personal protective equipment and a breathing apparatus as well as gloves. There are many toxins in smoke and ash residue that can cause sickness. The best case is to allow professionals to deal with excessive clean up situations.

The Contents of Ash

In the case of wildfires, there will be a lot of ash that ends up in pools. Ash from fires that burn lower than 840 degrees Fahrenheit is mostly organic carbon. At a higher temperature, the carbon is burned away and inorganic compounds are left. These include things like calcium, magnesium and sodium. The fires California not only burned forest, but also homes and structures. Because the combustion rate is much higher for buildings, the makeup of the ash is different. At a very high combustion rate, the ash can contain potassium and calcium oxides which create quicklime. If enough of this ash gets into the pool and then to the filter, it can create a limestone cement coating on the filter media. Ash from homes and structures can also contain toxins such as lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium. Most of the ash that lands in pool water is also hydrophobic and repels water. This explains why the ash floats and is so difficult to remove by skimming. Changing the charge of the ash by using a chitosan clarifier or an enzyme can help in the removal of the ash.