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February 7, 2024

During November 2018, the Camp Fire burned more than 150,000 acres in Butte County, California, including the Town of Paradise. The fire was the deadliest and most destructive in California history, causing at least 85 fatalities and destroying more than 18,000 structures.


Landsat 8 after image of the Camp Fire in California – a 2018 wildfire.
Landsat satellite image of the 2018 Camp Fire in California.

In the fire’s aftermath, understanding of the impact on connected ecosystems, including the regional watershed, will inform how we may prepare for and respond to fire events in the future. This was prime focus of a multi-year research effort led by faculty at Chico State University and supported by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, the USGS, and other research institutions. The impacts of the Camp Fire are of particular interest because of its location at the wildland-urban interface.

The overall research effort was led by Professors Jack Webster and Sandrine Matiasek at Chico State University. Between November 2018 and May 2019, one hundred and forty surface water samples were collected by the Chico State team, including baseflow and stormflow, from burned and unburned watersheds with varying extent of urban development. The water samples were analyzed for a wide range of constituents including metals, nutrients, and organics.

Dr. Charles Alpers, a Research Chemist from the USGS California Water Science Center in Sacramento, led the USGS contribution to the project. A USGS team gathered water samples from eight creek locations in the Paradise area associated with two storm events during January-March 2019 – seven sites affected by the Camp Fire plus an unburned control site.

USGS researcher collecting a water sample from Flea Valley Creek, California
USGS research crew member, Dylan Burau, is shown collecting water samples from Flea Valley Creek on March 1, 2019. (Photo by Dr. Charles Alpers.)

The USGS water samples were filtered using four different pore sizes to evaluate metals transported as tiny particles (colloids) that pass through conventional filters (0.45 micrometer pore size). The filtered water samples were analyzed by a USGS laboratory for major elements and trace metals.

The analysis methods and their results are described in an associated USGS data release. According to Alpers, “Our analysis shows that colloids were important for some trace metals including aluminum, chromium, iron, and lead.”

In addition, a collaborative paper titled: “Wildland-Urban Interface Wildfire Increases Metal Contributions to Stormwater Runoff in Paradise, California,” was recently published by a peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts.

The results described in the paper suggest that fires in the wildland-urban interface increase metal concentrations, mainly through particulate-driven transport. The metals with the largest increases are likely from anthropogenic disaster materials, though biomass ash contributions are also a major contributor to overall water quality. The increase in metals following wildland-urban interface burning may have adverse ecological impacts.

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