How Pool Service Techs Should Respond After a Wildfire

Pool technicians and service professionals must take great care when handling pool cleanup responsibilities after a wildfire.

No words can adequately express the condolences felt for those who have suffered loss during the wildfires experienced in North America. In the case of active fires, the utmost concern should always be for the immediate safety of persons and property. The devastation of wildfires over recent years has been particularly extreme. The following is some advice for pool professionals in dealing with the restoration and repair of pools after these unfortunate, common, occurrences.

During the fire

During and after wildfires, water pressure and water quality at the source will be affected. For residents trying to protect their property, using a hose may not always be effective. In some cases where water pressure becomes an issue during the fire, some fire departments may incorporate the use of pumps in pools to use the water contained in the vessel to protect homes. Homeowners in regions where wildfires occur can also buy pumps that can be used to soak down their property. These pumps typically operate at a flow rate of 568 liters per minute (lpm) 150 gallons per minute (gpm) and can disperse the contents of a 75,708-L (20,000-gal) pool within two hours.

Pool technicians should be aware of this possibility ahead of time to ensure the hydrostatic relief valve is in place on these pools to prevent the vessel from popping out of the ground during these emergencies. If there is a high groundwater table, or the pool is built over an underground spring, the chances of this occurring are even greater.

All types of debris are possible during wildfires as a result of high winds. Smoke, ash, tree branches, leaves, and fire suppressant chemicals will more than likely end up in the pool. There is also a possibility for live animals to seek shelter in the water or pool area. Pool technicians and/or homeowners should not attempt to deal with wild animals on their own. In these cases, local animal control or wildlife management officials should be contacted immediately.

Extreme caution should be used in and around areas where wildfires are still active. Protective gear such as a respiratory mask, goggles, and gloves may be required in these situations. It is prudent for pool technicians to carry some emergency supplies on their trucks at all times. This could include bottled water, safety flares, a protective non-flammable blanket, a battery-powered radio, and flashlight. Further, it is vital to comply with emergency management in the region and avoid areas where heavy smoke is present or where first responders are set-up.

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 where high winds are present. If a service route is near where fires are present, it is a good idea for service technicians to have several escape routes planned ahead of time.

Finally, smoke and ash can be a problem for large distances beyond the fire. Last summer, for example, smoke from the fires in British Columbia spread all the way to Seattle, Wash. The airborne ash and debris affected many pools in the region and, as a result, some developed filter and water quality (i.e. algae) problems.

After the fire

Great care should be taken when handling cleanup responsibilities after a wildfire. For instance, pool service technicians should keep an eye out for live downed power lines. In many cases, the fire department will shut off the power to fire-damaged homes because wires may have melted or been fused from the heat. In this regard, a service technician should check with the fire department first before attempting to turn the pump and filter breakers back on. Only a licensed electrical contractor should determine the integrity of the breakers for pumps.

Pool cleanup

As mentioned earlier, pools in regions affected by wildfires will contain many things. Therefore, when allowable, it is best to drain and refill the pool. Service technicians should also inspect the integrity of pool walls, plaster, pipefittings, decking, and the surrounding landscape. The components of smoke from a fire can cause severe lasting damage to equipment and structures, not to mention its adverse effects on water chemistry.

Smoke is corrosive and oxidative and can cause severe damage wherever it settles. If equipment and decking are covered in ash and smoke, service technicians should continue to use caution by wearing personal protective equipment (including gloves), as well as a breathing apparatus. There are many toxins in smoke and ash residue that can cause sickness. The best case is to allow professionals to deal with excessive cleanup situations.

The contents of ash

In the case of wildfires, a lot of ash will end up in pools. Ash from fires that burn lower than 449 C (840 F) is mostly organic carbon. At a higher temperature, the carbon is burned away leaving inorganic compounds. These include calcium, magnesium, and sodium. The fires in northern and southern California, for example, not only burned forests but also homes and other structures.

Since the combustion rate is much higher for buildings, the makeup of the ash is quite different. At extreme combustion rates, ash can contain potassium and calcium oxides, which create quicklime (i.e. calcium oxide). If enough of this ash gets into the pool and into the filter, it can create a limestone cement coating on the filtration media.

Ash from homes and structures can also contain toxins such as lead, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium. Most of the ash that falls into a pool is also hydrophobic and repels water. This explains why the ash floats and is difficult to remove by skimming. Changing the charge of the ash by using a chitosan clarifier or an enzyme can help in the removal process.

Maintenance tips for pools along the outer perimeter of a wildfire
In cases where homes were not damaged, but were in vicinity to a wildfire, pool service technicians can take the following steps:

  • Remove all large debris as soon as is possible.
  • Brush all surfaces thoroughly.
  • Skim smaller material with a pool net.
  • Make sure the filter is clean and operates properly.
  • 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 remove small ash material to the filter.
  • Use an enzyme to help breakdown some of the non-living organic material that cannot be filtered.
  • After the chlorine level has fallen below 5 ppm, test and treat the water for phosphates.
  • Add a good broad-spectrum algaecide.
  • The filter should be cleaned throughout this process, as necessary.
Tech tips for servicing pools during a wildfire
  • Use extreme caution in areas where wildfires are active.
  • Always check ahead of time with emergency management personnel before attempting to enter neighborhoods where fires have been.
  • Wear smoke protection when necessary (e.g. breathing mask and goggles).
  • Water in pools can contain toxins from smoke, ash, and firefighting chemicals; therefore, it is best to drain when possible. No one should ever swim in a pool in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire.
  • Keep in mind, wildfires can move fast and change course in seconds. Have more than one escape route planned ahead of time. It is best to stay out of the area.
  • Shock, floc, enzyme, phosphate removal, and algae prevention are all good remedial treatments once the wildfires are gone.
  • Check and inspect all equipment thoroughly during the cleanup process. Filters may need to be backwashed and cleaned frequently during this period.
  • Ensure pools equipped with firehose pumps also have hydrostatic relief valves to prevent them from lifting out of the ground due to being rapidly drained.
  • Be aware of erosion and flooding problems that may occur from damaged soil. Any vulnerable areas should be sandbagged in advance to ensure water flows to drains and/or culverts to prevent flooding.
The importance of testing and treating the water for phosphates
Phosphate testing and using phosphate removers are recommended for pools to keep resistant algae strains from flourishing in the absence of a chlorine sanitizer or an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered algaecide. Phosphate removal has become an industry standard, as it is a prime nutrient, which algae can use to resist typical chlorine and algaecide treatments. In fact, it has been proven quite successful in these circumstances. Phosphates can lead to algae resistant problems, as well as reduce the ability of salt chlorine generators from producing free available chlorine (FAC). To prevent this, phosphate removers should be used as they turn the byproduct into a solid precipitate that can be removed from the water by the filter.

The recommended water parameter levels for phosphates is 200 parts per billion (ppb) or below.

The ingredients of fire-fighting suppressants

Most of the dry suppressants dropped on wildfires are made primarily of di-ammonium phosphate. The result of this is an increase in ortho-phosphate ending up in waterways and 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, Calif., was one of the biggest wildfires in the state’s history. After this fire, service technicians reported a very high spike in phosphate levels in pools, which was likely due to the large amounts of phosphate-based suppressants that were dropped in the area.

Further cautions

The extreme heat from wildfires can cause the ground to bake, forming a solid layer of soil, which repels water and prevents absorption. This is a condition known as hydrophobicity. When it rains, the hydrophobic condition of the soil increases the rate of water run-off and, as a result, it can concentrate in these areas and cause erosion. Excessive erosion can come from firefighting efforts and lead to flooding when it rains.

In these circumstances, service technicians need to protect pool areas with sandbags or other water diversion methods to prevent an influx of floodwater in the pool. As mentioned earlier, pools drained during the fire will need to be inspected for damage and, in most cases, will likely need to be re-surfaced before regular use can commence.

This article was written by Terry Arko and originally appeared on Pool & Spa Marketing [link].