Photo: Adobe Stock / toa555

No words can adequately express the condolences felt for those who have suffered loss during the recent wildfires.

But we can do our best to help clients through these ordeals, while protecting our own safety as well. Fires bring unique problems, which I will address here.

Before the fire

Protective gear such as respiratory mask, goggles and gloves may be required in these situations. It is prudent to carry some emergency supplies on your truck at all times. This could include bottled water, safety flares, a protective non-flammable blanket, a battery powered radio and flashlight.

Water pressure and water quality at the source will be affected during and after times of wild fires. For residents trying to protect their property, using the hose may not always be effective. In 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 be used to soak down their property. These pumps can typically work at a flow of 150 gallons per minute (gpm) and can disperse the contents of a 20,000-gallon pool within 2 hours.

Pool technicians should be aware ahead of time of this possibility and check that hydrostatic relief valves are in place on these pools to prevent the vessels from popping out of the ground during these emergency use times. If the site has a high groundwater table or the pool is built over an underground spring, this could be a very real possibility.

During the fire

In the case of active fires, the utmost concern should be for the immediate safety of persons and property.

In addition, it is vital to comply with the emergency management in the area. 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.

Use extreme caution in areas where wildfires are active. Remember that wildfires can move fast and change course in seconds, so it is best to stay out of the area.

Avoid areas of heavy smoke where emergency crews are still set up. When necessary, wear smoke protection such as a breathing mask and goggles.

Water pressure and water quality at the source will be affected during and after wild fires.

In addition, live animals may seek shelter in the pool or spa 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 masks, goggles and gloves may be required.

After the fire

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

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 Washington area. The airborne ash and debris affected many pools in the area. Some of the pools developed filter problems and bouts of algae.

Clean-up after a wildfire can take time and should be pursued with care.

Always check ahead of time with emergency management personnel before attempting to enter neighborhoods hit by fires.

Pay special attention to your surroundings at all times. Be aware of live downed power lines. In many cases in fire-damaged homes, 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.

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 in Northern California and the current fires in Southern California not only burned forest, but also homes and structures. Because the combustion rate is much higher for buildings, the make-up of the ash is much more 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.

The ingredients of fire-fighting suppressants

Most of the dry suppressants dropped on wild fires are a made primarily of di-ammonium phosphate. The result of this is an increase in ortho-phosphate ending up in the waterways and in swimming pools. Phosphate in pools leads to many water quality issues and can combine with calcium to form calcium phosphate scale on heat exchangers.

In 2003, the Cedar Fire in San Diego California was one of the biggest wildfires in California history. After that fire, pool service professionals reported a very high spike in phosphate levels in pools. This could have been in direct relation to the large amounts of phosphate-based suppressants that were dropped in the area.

Pool Clean Up in Fire Zones

Swimming pools in fire areas will contain ash, debris, firefighting chemicals and toxins. It is best when allowable to drain and re-fill the pool.

The components of smoke from fire can cause severe lasting damage to equipment and structures. Inspect the integrity of the pool walls, plaster, the pipe fittings, decking and surrounding landscape.

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.

Outside immediate fire zones

In cases where homes were not damaged but were in a vicinity to the fire, the following steps can be taken. A regimen of shock, floc, enzyme, phosphate removal and algae prevention makes for a good remedial treatment:

• Remove all larger debris in the pool and/or spa as soon as possible.

• Brush all surfaces thoroughly.

• Skim smaller material with a pool net.

• Make sure filters are clean and in operational order.

• Inspect all equipment.

• Super-chlorinate the pool to 20 parts per million (ppm) or use a quality chlorine-free oxidizer.

• Follow immediately with a clarifier to help send small ash material to the filter.

• Consider using an enzyme to help break down some of the non-living, organic material that can’t be filtered.

• Most firefighting suppressants such as those dropped from the air contain phosphate. Be sure to test and treat for phosphates once the chlorine levels dip below 5 ppm.

• Follow with a good broad spectrum algaecide.

• Clean filters as necessary throughout this process. They may need to be backwashed and cleaned frequently during this time.

Further cautions

The after effects of wildfires last longer than immediate clean-up and repair.

For instance, the extreme heat from the fires can cause the ground to bake, bakes the soil forming a solid layer that causes it to repel water. This is a condition known as hydrophobicity. When rains come, the hydrophobic condition of the soil increases the rate of water run-off. Water can concentrate in these areas causing erosion.

Additionally, excessive erosion from firefighting efforts could lead to flooding and mud flows during rains. Pool areas should be protected with sand bags or other diversion methods immediately after fires to prevent an influx of mud and flood water from entering the pool.

Pools that have been drained will need to be inspected for damage to surfaces and deck areas as well as all equipment connections.