In 2007-09, California experienced several large wildfires that damaged large areas of forest and destroyed many homes and buildings. The U.S. Geological Survey collected samples from the Harris, Witch, Grass Valley, Ammo, Santiago, Canyon, Jesusita, and Station fires for testing to identify any possible characteristics of the ashes and soils from burned areas that may be of concern for their impact on water quality, human health, and endangered species.
The samples were subjected to analysis for bulk chemical composition for 44 elements by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) after acid digestion and de-ionized water leach tests for pH, alkalinity, conductivity, and anions. Water leach tests generated solutions ranging from pH 10-12, suggesting that ashes can generate caustic alkalinity in contact with rainwater or body fluids (for example, sweat and fluids in the respiratory tract). Samples from burned residential areas in the 2007 fires had elevated levels for several metals, including: As, Pb, Sb, Cu, Zn, and Cr. In some cases, the levels found were above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) preliminary remediation goals (PRG) for soils.
Speciation analyses were conducted on de-ionized water and simulated lung fluid leachates for As(III), As(V), Se(IV), Se(VI), Cr(III), and Cr(VI). All species were determined in the same analytical run using an ion-pairing HPLC-ICP-MS method. For leachates containing high levels of total Cr, the majority of the chromium was present in the hexavalent, Cr(VI), form. Higher total and hexavalent chromium levels were observed for samples collected from burned residential areas. Arsenic was also generally present in the more oxidized, As(V), form. Selenium (IV) and (VI) were present, but typically at levels below 2 ppb for most samples. Stability studies of leachate solutions under different storage conditions were performed and the suitability of different sample preservation methods for speciation analysis will be discussed.