Skip to main content

Water safety attitudes, risk perception, experiences, and education for households impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire, California


The 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California, was the state’s most destructive wildfire in history, destroying more than 14,600 homes. The wildfire caused widespread drinking water system chemical contamination resulting in acute and chronic health risks, requiring water use restrictions. Six months after the fire, the research team conducted a rapid community survey of attitudes and experiences that were specific to building water safety. The validated surveys represented 233 households. Amid the disaster response, 54% of the respondents self-reported that at least one member in their household had anxiety, stress, or depression directly related to the water contamination issues. Uncertainty about water and plumbing safety prompted respondents to alter water use in the home (83%), install in-home water treatment technologies (47%), and/or seek alternate water sources (85%). To provide affected households with answers to plumbing testing and safety questions, the research team designed and conducted a community education event. Many community members had technical questions about how to conduct water testing to determine whether their plumbing was safe. The research team identified several significant public health information gaps and a need for clear recommendations. This work illustrates the advantages of community involvement for resolving ambiguities in how households can respond to water safety issues following a natural disaster. Further, the authors posit that strong community engagement in this context can reduce both psychological distress and exposure risks.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. Afifi WA, Felix ED, Afifi TD (2012) The impact of uncertainty and communal coping on mental health following natural disasters. Anxiety, Stress, Coping 25(3):329-347.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ames A, Steiner V, Liebold E, Milz SA, Eitniear S (2019) Perceptions of water-related environmental concerns in Northwest Ohio one year after a Lake Erie harmful algal bloom. Environ Manag 64:689–700.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Attari SZ, Poinsatte-Jones K, Hinton K (2017) Perceptions of water systems. Judgment Decis Making 12(3):314–327

    Google Scholar 

  4. AWWA and Economic and Engineering Services, Inc. (2002) Permeation and leaching. Prepared for: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 11 Sept 2019

  5. Big Basin Water Company (2020) Date: 09/21/2020 Unsafe water alert: do not drink-do not boil your water. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  6. Big Basin Water Company (2020) Monterey Bay analytical services water report. Accessed 24 Oct 2020

  7. Bivins A, Beetsch N, Majuru B, Montgomery M, Sumner T, Brown J (2019) Selecting household water treatment options on the basis of world health organization performance testing protocols. Environ Sci Technol 53:5043–5051.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bonanno GA, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, Vlahov D (2007) What predicts psychological resilience after disaster? The role of demographics, resources, and life stress. J Consult Clin Psychol 75(5), 671–682.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Butte County Health Department (2019a) Butte County Private Well Information Post-fire well safety and testing guidelines UPDATED 1/18/19. Oroville, CA USA. Accessed 7 Aug 2019

  10. Butte County Health Department (2019b) Butte County Health Officer issues water quality advisory for residents in burn affected areas. Oroville, CA USA. Accessed 30 Jun 2019

  11. Butte County Health Department (2019c) Butte County private well information post-fire well safety and testing guidelines. Accessed 7 Aug 2019

  12. Butte County Health Department (2019d) Butte County private well information post-fire well safety and testing guidelines UPDATED 5/14/19. Oroville, CA USA. Accessed 7 Aug 2019

  13. California Department of Water Resources, Northern Regional Office, RE: Camp Fire – Private Drinking Water Wells. Message to Andrew Whelton (Purdue University). 20 March 2019

  14. California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (2019) LIVE: Paradise Irrigation District Community Meeting—water system update—March 26, 2019. Accessed 8 Sept 2019

  15. California Department of Finance (2019) California Tops 39.9 Million Residents at New Year per New State Demographic Report: Data Reflect Fire-Driven Changes to Local Populations, Housing, Sacramento, CA USA. Available:

  16. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment California (2019) Environmental Protection Agency Pesticide and Environmental Toxicology Branch. Estimated Risks from Short-term Exposures to Benzene in Drinking Water, 2019. Sacramento, CA USA.

  17. California State Water Resources Control Board (2019a) ​Information to water customers regarding water quality in buildings located in areas damaged by wildfire 8.9.19. Sacramento, CA USA. Accessed 30 Jul 2019

  18. California State Water Resources Control Board (2019b) Notice to residents served by water systems affected by the Camp Fire. January 11 2019. Sacramento, CA USA. Accessed 30 July 2019

  19. California State Water Resources Control Board (2019c) UPDATED Drinking Water Advisory For Del Oro Water Company customers affected by the Camp Fire. March 5, 2019. Accessed 30 July 2019

  20. Chavez M, Perez M, Tunney C, Núñez S (2017) Accountability and transparency diluted in the flint water crisis: a case of institutional implosion. Norteamérica 12(1):11–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. County of Santa Cruz (2020) Water Wells and Springs. Santa Cruz, CA USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  22. City of Talent. PWSID 00857: post-wildfire VOCs. Talent, OR USA. 1 Feb 2021.

  23. City of Talent. PWSID 00857: post-wildfire VOCs. Talent, OR USA. 22 Mar 2021.

  24. Cox RS, Perry KME (2011) Like a fish out of water: reconsidering disaster recovery and the role of place and social capital in community disaster resilience. Am J Community Psychol 48:395–411.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Del Oro Water Company (2019a) Camp Fire Advisory for Del Oro water districts only. January 9, 2019. Chico, CA USA. Accessed 30 Jul 2019

  26. Del Oro Water Company (2019b) Del Oro Water company—camp fire update. Chico, CA USA. Accessed 30 Jul 2019

  27. Deng Q, Gao Y, Wang C, Zhang H (2020) Detecting information requirements for crisis communication from social media data: an interactive topic modeling approach. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct 50:2212–4209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Emme DH (2020) SUBJECT: water quality testing post Almeda Fire. Email to Andrew Whelton (Purdue University). October 29, 2020, Salem, OR USA

  29. Exum NG, Betanzo E, Schwab KJ, Chen TYJ, Guikema S, Harvey DE (2018) Extreme precipitation, public health emergencies, and safe drinking water in the USA. Curr Environ Health Rep 5:305–315.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (2019) Job Aid for Disaster Recovery Reform Act, Section 1205 Additional Activities for Wildfire and Wind Implementation under Hazard Mitigation Assistance Programs. Washington, D.C. USA.

  31. Feo TJ, Evans S, Mace AJ, Brady SE, Lindsey B (2020) The costs of wildfire in California: an independent review of scientific and technical information full report. California Council on Science and Technology. Sacramento, CA USA

  32. Forsyth D (2019) Camp Fire survivors–relocation map. Accessed 30 July 2019

  33. Fournel L, Mocho P, Brown R, Le Cloirec P (2010) Modeling breakthrough curves of volatile organic compounds on activated carbon fibers. Adsorption 16:147–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. French CC (2020) America on Fire: Climate Change, Wildfires & Insuring Natural Catastrophes, 54 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 817, Penn State Law Research Paper No. 12-2020

  35. Heard-Garris NJ, Roche J, Carter P, Abir M, Walton M, Zimmerman M, Cunningham R (2017) Voices from flint: community perceptions of the flint water crisis. J Urban Health 94:776–779.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Hiland WC - Echo Mountain. PWSID 00605: Post-wildfire VOCs. Newberg, OR USA. 20 Dec 2020.

  37. Hiland WC - Echo Mountain. PWSID 00605: Post-wildfire VOCs. Newberg, OR USA. 3 Mar 2021.

  38. Isaacson KP, Proctor CR, Wang QE, Edwards EY, Noh Y, Shah AD, Whelton AJ (2021) Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response. Environ Sci Water Res Technol 7:274–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Jenks J (2019) Drinking water and plumbing after the Camp Fire: summary of the interactive demos. Paradise, CA USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  40. Jetoo S, Grover VI, Krantzberg G (2015) The Toledo Drinking Water Advisory: suggested application of the water safety planning approach. Sustainability 7:9787–9808.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Joo Shin K, Nakakido R, Horie S, Managi S (2016) The effects of community attachment and information seeking on displaced disaster victims’ decision making. PLoS ONE.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kamravaei S, Shariaty P, Jahandar Lashaki M, Atkinson JD, Hashisho Z, Phillips JH, Anderson JE, Nichols M (2017) Effect of beaded activated carbon fluidization on adsorption of volatile organic compounds. Ind Eng Chem Res (56):1297–1305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Lantacne D, Clasen T (2012) Point-of-use water treatment in emergency response. Waterlines 31:30–52

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Lee J, Lohani VK, Dietrich AM, Loganathan GV (2012) Hydraulic transients in plumbing systems. Water Sci Technol Water Supply 12:619–629.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Loo S-L, Fane AG, Krantz WB, Lim T-T (2012) Emergency water supply: a review of potential technologies and selection criteria. Water Res 46:3125–3151.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Masten SJ, Davies SH, McElmurry SP (2016) Flint water crisis: what happened and why? J Am Water Works Assoc 108:22–34

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. McCann DGC, Moore A, Walker M-EA (2011) The public health implications of water in disasters. World Med Health Policy 3:3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. McCarty CL, Nelson L, Eitniear S, Zgodzinski E, Zabala A, Billing L, DiOrio M (2016) Community needs assessment after microcystin toxin contamination of a municipal water supply—Lucas County, Ohio, September 2014. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 65(35):925–929.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. McGee TK, McCaffrey S, Tedim F (2020) In: Tedim F, Leone V, McGee TK (Eds) Extreme wildfire events and disasters: root causes and new management strategies, Elsevier, Resident and community recovery after wildfire, pp 175–184

  50. McGuire AP, Gauthier JM, Anderson LM, Hollingsworth DW, Tracy M, Galea S, Coffey SF (2018) Social support moderates effects of natural disaster exposure on depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: effects for displaced and nondisplaced residents. J Trauma Stress 31:223–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Mohammed A, Johnston RM, van der Linden C (2020) Public responses to policy reversals: the case of mask usage in Canada during COVID-19. Can Public Policy 46:S119–S126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Muttarak R, Pothisiri W (2013) The role of education on disaster preparedness: case study of 2012 Indian Ocean earthquakes on Thailand’s Andaman coast. Ecol Soc 18(4)

  53. Napa Berryessa Resort Improvement District (2020) Water alert issued for Berryessa Highlands. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  54. National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine (2020) Implications of the California wildfires for health, communities, and preparedness: proceedings of a workshop, Washington, D.C. USA.

  55. National Interagency Fire Center (2020). Boise, ID USA. Accessed 24 Oct 2020.

  56. NSF International and American National Standards Institute (2015) NSF/ANSI 53 - 2015: drinking water treatment units - health effects, Ann Arbor, MI USA.

  57. Oregon Health Authority (2020) Customer guidance regarding water quality in buildings located in areas damaged by wildfire. Salem, OR USA. Accessed 7 Nov 2020

  58. Panther Creek WD. PWS ID 00603: Post-wildfire VOCs. Otis, OR USA. 2 Mar 2021.

  59. Pearce L (2003) Disaster management and community planning, and public participation: how to achieve sustainable hazard mitigation. Nat Hazards 28:211–228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Pfefferbaum B, Jacobs AK, Van Horn RL, Houston JB (2016) Effects of displacement in children exposed to disasters. Curr Psychiatry Rep 18:71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Phan NK, Sherchan SP (2020) Microbiological assessment of tap water following the 2016 Louisiana Flooding. Int J Environ Res Public Health 17(4):1273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Proctor CR, Lee J, Yu D, Shah AD, Whelton AJ (2020) Wildfire caused widespread drinking water distribution network contamination. AWWA Water Sci. 2(4):e1183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Ramalingam SG, Pré P, Giraudet S, Le Coq L, Le Cloirec P, Baudouin O, Déchelotte S (2012) Different families of volatile organic compounds pollution control by microporous carbons in temperature swing adsorption processes. J Hazard Mater 221–222:242–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Redfern R, Micham J, Daniels R, Childers S (2018) Something in the water: hospital responds to water crisis. Disaster Med Public Health Prep, 12(5):666-668.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  65. Renn O (2008) In: Heath RL, O'Hair HD (Eds) Handbook of risk and crisis communication, Taylor & Francis Group, Risk Communication: Insights and Requirements for Designing Successful Communication Programs on Health and Environmental Hazards, pp 80–98

  66. Rundblad G, Knapton O, Hunter PR (2010) Communication, perception and behaviour during a natural disaster involving a ‘Do Not Drink’ and a subsequent ‘Boil Water’ notice: a postal questionnaire study. BMC Public Health 10:641.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Rundblad G, Knapton O, Hunter PR (2014) The causes and circumstances of drinking water incidents impact consumer behaviour: comparison of a routine versus a natural disaster incident. Int J Environ Res Public Health 11:11915–11930.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Saam K (2019) New online survey examines water after the Camp Fire. KRCR News Channel 7. Accessed 30 July 2019

  69. San Lorenzo Valley Water District (2020) Date: 08/29/2020 unsafe water alert: do not drink-do not boil your water. Boulder Creek, CA USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  70. San Lorenzo Valley Water District (2020) Do not drink—do not boil advisory (8/29/2020) Frequently Asked Questions. Boulder Creek, CA USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  71. San Lorenzo Valley Water District (2020) CZU Fire—Water Quality Info. Boulder Creek, CA USA. Accessed 24 Oct 2020

  72. Sansom GT, Aarvig K, Sansom L, Thompson C, Fawkes L, Katare A (2020) Understanding risk communication and willingness to follow emergency recommendations following anthropogenic disasters. Environ Just.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Savoia E, Lin L, Viswanath K (2017) Sources of information during the 2014 West Virginia water crisis: a cross-sectional survey. Disaster Med Public Health Prep 11(2):196–206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Schade CP, Wright N, Gupta R, Latif DA, Jha A, Robinson J (2015) Self-reported household impacts of large-scale chemical contamination of the public water supply, Charleston, West Virginia, USA. PLoS ONE.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Schmieding S (2019) Purdue University puts together camp fire standing home survey. Accessed 30 Jul 2019

  76. Schulze SS, Fischer EC (2021) Prediction of water distribution system contamination based on wildfire burn severity in wildland urban interface communities. ACS ES&T Water 1:291–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Schulze SS, Fischer EC, Hamideh S, Mahmoud H (2020) Wildfire impacts on schools and hospitals following the 2018 California Camp Fire. Nat Hazards 104:901–925.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Sjöberg L (2000) Factors in risk perception. Risk Anal 20:1–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Spearing LA, Faust KM (2020) Cascading system impacts of the 2018 Camp Fire in California: the interdependent provision of infrastructure services to displaced populations. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct 50:101822.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Steelman TA, McCaffrey SM, Velez ALK, Briefel JA (2015) What information do people use, trust, and find useful during a disaster? Evidence from five large wildfires. Nat Hazards 76:615–634.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Thomas TL, Friedman DB, Brandt HM, Spencer SM, Tanner A (2016) Uncharted waters: communicating health risks during the 2014 West Virginia water crisis. J Health Commun 21:1062–1070.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Town of Paradise (2020) Town of Paradise June 2020 Community Information Meeting. Accessed 26 Oct 2020

  83. U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Population and Housing (2019a). Accessed 10 Sept 2019

  84. U.S. Census Bureau (2019b) QuickFacts: Butte County, California; Paradise town, California. Accessed 9 Sept 2019

  85. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) Toolkit, 2nd edn. Atlanta, GA USA. Accessed 20 Aug 2019

  86. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) Disaster response and recovery needs of communities affected by the Elk River Chemical Spill, West Virginia. Atlanta, GA USA. Accessed 11 Sept 2019

  87. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) after the flint water crisis: 17–19 May 2016. Atlanta, GA USA. Accessed 11 Sept 2019

  88. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) Interactive map of CASPERs. Atlanta, GA USA. Accessed 17 Oct 2019

  89. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox. Atlanta, GA USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  90. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2000) Toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP) for VOCs, SVOCs, chlorinated pesticides and herbicides, and metals by SW-846 method 1311 and analysis. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2019.

  91. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2006) Point-of-use or point-of-entry treatment options for small drinking water systems. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 11 Sept 2019

  92. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2018a) 3Ts toolkit materials module 5: conducting sampling and interpreting results 2-step sampling at the tap. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 30 Jul 2019

  93. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2018b) Guidance for responding to drinking water contamination incidents. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 1 Oct 2020

  94. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Planning for an emergency drinking water supply. Washington, D.C. USA. Accessed 16 Oct 2019

  95. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2019) SDWIS Search.

  96. Wallingford N (2018) Camp incident damage inspection report: CABTU 016737. Accessed 26 Jul 2019

  97. Wang T, Kim J, Whelton AJ (2019) Management of plastic bottle and filter waste during the large-scale Flint Michigan lead contaminated drinking water incident. Resour Conserv Recycl 140:115–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  98. Whelton AJ, Wisniewski PK, States S, Birkmire SE, Brown MK (2006) Lessons learned from drinking water disaster and terrorism exercises. J Am Water Works Assoc 98:63–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  99. Whelton AJ, McMillan L, Novy CLR, White KD, Huang X (2017) Case study: the crude MCHM chemical spill investigation and recovery in West Virginia USA. Environ Sci Water Res Technol 3:312–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  100. Whelton AJ, Rhoads WJ, Goodwill J, Cwiertny D, Lee J, Proctor C, Shah A. Plumbing Testing Guidance for Persons Affected by the Camp Fire. 16 Jun 2019. Prepared for: California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, Sacramento, CA USA.

  101. Whispering Pines MH Village. PWSID 01468: Post-wildfire VOCs. Medford, OR USA. 26 Feb 2021.

  102. Winston G, Lerman S, Goldberger S, Collins M, Leventhal A (2003) A tap water turbidity crisis in Tel Aviv, Israel, due to technical failure: toxicological and risk management issues. Int J Hyg Environ Health 206:193–200.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  103. Wutich A, Ragsdale K (2008) Water insecurity and emotional distress: coping with supply, access, and seasonal variability of water in a Bolivian squatter settlement. Soc Sci Med 67:2116–2125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Funding was provided by each institution to support each author’s participation. Funding was also provided by the Paradise Rotary Foundation, Lillian Gilbreth Fellowship and Ross Fellowship Programs at Purdue University, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant R836890. Thanks are extended to those organizations who distributed the survey announcements to include ABC KRCR News Channel 7 and CBS and Action News Now for advertising the survey, Camp Fire Zone Project, and the DOWC. Data provided by third parties were presented as is. All authors participated in the Camp Fire response, and AW and CS also participated in the 2017 Tubbs Fire response. It is assumed that additional information may exist in ongoing legal proceedings that may or may not be made public. The authors do not represent any legal position in litigation related to this incident.

Author information




This manuscript includes multiple authors, and each contributed to this manuscript and its content. AW, CP, TO, and EW contributed to all aspects of the survey and education parts of the study. AS, KP, DY, JL, and AS contributed to the survey design, conduct, analysis, and development of lessons learned. CL, YN, CS, JS, JW, KM, ML, and JJ contributed to the education session design, advertisement, participated in its conduct, and development of lessons learned. All authors participated in drafting or review and editing of the manuscript. AW attests that this author list is appropriate for the size/scope of the work. All authors participated in drafting or review and editing of the manuscript. All authors approve of the submitted files.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew J. Whelton.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 25411 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Odimayomi, T.O., Proctor, C.R., Wang, Q.E. et al. Water safety attitudes, risk perception, experiences, and education for households impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire, California. Nat Hazards 108, 947–975 (2021).

Download citation


  • Wildfire
  • Drinking water
  • Infrastructure
  • Natech
  • Health
  • Chemical
  • Contamination