January 25, 2023

Study: How to apply lessons from Colorado’s costliest wildfire to drinking water systems

Issue and key research finding

Wildfire damage to drinking water systems can significantly delay a community’s economic recovery. The costliest disaster in Colorado’s history, the Marshall Fire of 2021, resulted in more than $2 billion in losses. Six drinking water systems were directly in the fire’s path.

While communities and governments nationwide have been facing the impact of these disasters on drinking water systems, no national synthesis of scientific and policy needs has been conducted. Now, a study has outlined the scientific and policy needs specific to drinking water systems’ resilience to wildfires.

At the request of two Colorado cities shortly following the Marshall Fire, Purdue University researchers provided onsite technical assistance and led the case study. The goal was to better understand the decisions, resources, expertise and response limitations during and after the wildfire. The team also included collaborators from the University of Colorado Boulder, Oregon State University and Corona Environmental Consulting LLC.

The researchers say that should the needs identified by this study be addressed, drinking water safety risks could be minimized, and wildfire-vulnerable communities could better protect their workers and the overall population and expedite recovery.

Purdue professor’s expertise

Andrew Whelton is a professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering. He also directs the Healthy Plumbing Consortium and Center for Plumbing Safety. His research group specializes in disaster response and recovery when critical infrastructure systems are impacted.

Journal article publication

The study is published in AWWA Water Science. Full access to the paper is available on the journal’s website.


Purdue researchers were supported by the following funding sources:

U.S. National Science Foundation grant 2214580: RAPID: Drinking Water System Contamination Response and Recovery Following the 2021 Colorado Wildfires

Water Research Foundation project 5106: Post-Wildfire Distribution System Water Quality Impacts and Potential Responses

City of Louisville, Colorado

Brief summary of methods

Purdue researchers were called for help and teamed with multiple organizations that were impacted by, and responded to, the Marshall Fire. To conduct this case study, the team met with utility staff, visited the areas impacted, inspected damaged systems and customer properties, and assisted with developing drinking water infrastructure damage and contamination assessment strategies. Insights from the Boulder County Health Department, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regions 8 and 9 and community members were also reviewed. The team reviewed water sampling and testing records, public announcements and meeting recordings.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. Ranked in each of the last five years as one of the 10 Most Innovative universities in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, Purdue delivers world-changing research and out-of-this-world discovery. Committed to hands-on and online, real-world learning, Purdue offers a transformative education to all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, enabling more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap at https://stories.purdue.edu.

Writer/Media contact: Kayla Wiles, 765-494-2432, wiles5@purdue.edu 

Source: Andrew Whelton, awhelton@purdue.edu

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