After Pinnacle Mountain fire, officials monitor county water supply

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Illustration by Kody Kratzer

Last week, the S.C. Forestry Commission announced that fire crews have fully contained the Pinnacle Mountain fire, which has burned 10,645 acres and cost $4.8 million across Pickens County. However, the fight is far from over.

Containment does not mean the fire is controlled but that 100 percent of the fire’s perimeter will hold under current and foreseeable conditions, said Forestry Commission spokesman Doug Wood. However, that percentage can fluctuate depending on the fire and the fire lines constructed around it.

Wood added that the fire would be considered controlled once it has been determined that fire crews are no longer needed at the site. “There are still a number of hot spots throughout the area, but we’re starting the cleanup process,” Wood said.

However, there have been no residential structures destroyed or firefighter injuries since the fire started on Nov. 9 due to a campfire. Also, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has suspended its air quality reports as conditions have improved. A code yellow air quality alert ended last week in Greenville and Pickens counties.

Eyes on the water

 

The Forestry Commission’s announcement followed a heavy rain shower that moved through the area last Sunday, which was the fourth day of significant rainfall for the region. Showers continued to pour on the fire through last Wednesday.

With more rain in the forecast this month, the Forestry Commission and several other agencies, including the Greenville Water System and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, have begun addressing erosion control issues in some areas. That includes cleaning out stream crossings to restore the natural flow of water, planting grass seed, repairing grades, installing dips in the ground and installing water bars to direct rainwater.

Greenville Water System officials are also monitoring water in its Table Rock Reservoir, which is one of the company’s three drinking water sources for 500,000 Greenville County residents. On Nov. 18, the water company stopped using water from the reservoir, which provides residents with 2,077 million gallons of drinking water per month. The company is currently distributing water from its North Saluda Reservoir and Lake Keowee.

Greenville Water decided to stop using water from the reservoir due to a large-scale burnout operation on Nov. 17 that covered about 2,000 acres, from Back Park Road to South Saluda Road and north to Table Rock Reservoir, according to Greenville Water Chief Operating Officer Rebecca West.

She added that the company has an “ample supply of water” despite closing its Table Rock Reservoir. Greenville Water currently distributes 4,650 million gallons of drinking water per month from Lake Keowee and 1,860 million gallons per month from its North Saluda Reservoir.

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Since the burnout operation, Greenville Water has lab-tested several water samples from the reservoir. The water company has also worked closely with Clemson University, which has provided independent lab testing.

“The burnout created piles of soot in the area that could have ended up in the reservoir due to heavy rain showers and erosion,” West said.

However, she said that current water samples are “average” and not showing increased amounts of total organic carbon, which is a measure of the carbon contained within soil organic matter, such as soot or charcoal. If soot gets into nearby soil and flows into the Table Rock Reservoir, the company has to use extra treatment methods, said Oliva Vassey, communications manager for Greenville Water.

To prevent water contamination from occurring, the water company has constructed silt fencing around the reservoir. Silt fencing can trap up to 90 percent of hill-slope erosion, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Greenville Water currently uses chloramine, which is a combination of chlorine and ammonia, to disinfect its water.

The soot risk will gradually disappear as rain continues to fall across the area and leaves start to layer over the fire debris, according to West. “The soot filters through the foliage as erosion occurs,” she said. “We’re just monitoring to be safe.”

West said the company is also monitoring the reservoir’s pH levels as smoke from the fire could have affected the water’s acidity through heavy acidic rainfall. So far, pH levels in the reservoir have remained normal.

A green watershed ahead

 

The Table Rock Reservoir will remain closed until more lab testing is done by Greenville Water and Clemson University, West said.

Once Greenville Water begins using the reservoir again, there could be a slight difference in the taste of the water as decades of filtering foliage near the reservoir are now burned up, according to Vassey. So far, the fire has burned more than 7,000 acres in the Greenville Water System Watershed.

“While the fire spread throughout more than 70 percent of the watershed, it hasn’t consumed all of the land. Sure, some of the watershed trees and understory brush were burned up, but it really hit in spots,” West said. “We’re expecting to see a green watershed in the spring, because nutrients from the dead trees will act as fertilizer.”

In 2014, the company hired The Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based conservation group, to create a natural resource  management plan for the watershed. That plan recommends prescribed fires, which reduce forest fuels that lead to the increased risk of severe wildfires. Greenville Water is considering the use of prescribed fire to prevent wildfires from spreading across the area in the future.

“Prescribed fire isn’t something to take lightly,” Vassey said. “We haven’t had, and still don’t have enough people on staff to properly conduct a prescribed fire in the watershed. Prescribed fires require a lot of planning, so we have to balance that out. Plus, we really don’t want to be responsible for the Upstate’s next big wildfire.”

She also said that drought has prevented the company from conducting prescribed burns.

During drought, the Forestry Commission issues burning bans when “weather conditions present an elevated risk of wildfire.” That ban prohibits outdoor burning, including yard debris burning and burning for forestry purposes. The commission recently lifted a burning ban for the Piedmont region that lasted through much of November.

The South Carolina Drought Response Committee updated drought statuses for all 46 counties in October. Upstate counties, including Anderson, Oconee and Pickens, were upgraded to severe drought status.

Other Upstate counties, including Greenville, were designated as moderate. The current drought conditions are the worst in the Upstate since 2012. Some counties in the Upstate have received less than 10 percent of normal rainfall throughout the last 60 days, according to state climatologist Hope Mizzell.

Last Thursday, the drought response committee released an updated drought status for the state but the status for Upstate counties remained the same. Rain is expected in the near future, but many weather experts said it wouldn’t be enough to cause a significant change to drought statuses across the state.

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