Watershed protection a focus of wildfire fighting efforts

Screen shot of the Inciweb Website (https://inciweb.nwcg.gov) July 6, 2018.

From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):

Damage to water supplies in reservoirs can be disruptive and cost millions in repairs down the line. To reduce that risk, Denver and its partners are spending $66 million for tree thinning and reforestation above critical watersheds.

Their work comes as a new report, by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, warns that wildfires spreading over the western United States already taint nearby streams with unhealthy sediments and organic materials, and may someday overwhelm municipal water supplies. It also comes as dry weather and high temperatures have sparked a spate of wildfires in the mountains, and as authorities brace for fires sparked by July 4 celebrations.

“A great number of drinking water utilities draw water from forested watersheds,” said Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an associate professor at CU’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. He is also the study’s lead author.

The study, funded by The Water Research Foundation and presented at CU last month, lists challenges posed by wildfires, including short- and long-term effects of the availability and quality of drinking-water sources used by major metropolitan areas such as Denver.

The report also points to possible solutions for utilities serving fire-prone regions and planning for worst-case scenarios. They include expanding water-shortage capacity, using pre-sedimentation basins and diversifying water sources.

“When these watersheds are impacted by wildfire, the impacts on source water quality can be severe, forcing utilities to respond in order to continue to provide safe drinking water to their customers,” Rosario-Ortiz said.

Colorado’s two largest cities say they are aware of the dangers and are pooling dollars and resources to ensure much of the Front Range’s drinking water is protected from the contamination spread by wildfires.

“Denver Water has seen not only a commitment financially but also a commitment in time and energy by us and our partners to keep our water safe,” said Christina Burri, Denver Water’s watershed scientist.

A 2010 agreement — among Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service and aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires — will continue at least through 2021 at a cost of $66 million. The work includes thinning trees and restoring forest on more than 40,000 acres of watershed deemed critical to downstream water supplies, Burri said.

Those areas provide clean drinking water to more than 1.4 million residents in the Denver area, Burri said.

Protecting watersheds has become a top priority on the Front Range, according to Mike Myers, chief of the Colorado Springs Wildland Fire Team, as major wildfires have become almost year-round events.

“We’re doing a better job at mitigating these fires than before, but we’ve had to,” Myers said. “The fires now are just so much bigger and stronger than before.”

The CU researchers said recent wildfires have increased in size and duration, which creates concerns that existing treatment resources could eventually be crippled.

The 2012 High Park fire burned sections of the Cache la Poudre watershed, which serves northern Colorado communities, including Fort Collins.

That same year, the Waldo Canyon fire burned through Pike National Forest, temporarily jeopardizing water supplies for Colorado Springs. The blaze contaminated reservoirs and caused about $10 million in damage to a pipeline in the Northfield reservoir system.

Colorado Springs, however, was able to draw on two smaller reservoirs to provide safe drinking water for residents, Myers said. “We’ve worked hard to have a diverse group of reservoirs we can call on in emergencies, and in this case, it worked well,” he said.

While ecologists and land managers have studied wildfires extensively, the scope of post-wildfire effects on drinking water remains uncertain, researchers said. Data show that fires degrade surface water quality through erosion, ash deposits and increased sediment loads. Nutrient runoff — including nitrogen and phosphorus — can spur algal blooms, which can lead to environmental and health problems and force cities to cut water to residents.

The CU researchers simulated the effects of a medium-temperature wildfire, and the resulting materials were leached into tap water and treated using conventional processes.

The results showed the heated materials increased the turbidity of the water, a key measure of water quality, and responded poorly to chemical coagulants, leading to downstream filtration problems, the CU researchers said.

“Our work has shown that source waters impacted by wildfires can be difficult to treat, resulting in additional costs in the form of more chemical coagulants and the potential need for capital improvements,” Rosario-Ortiz said.

Forest management work helps to prevent soil from eroding and releasing sediment into streams, reservoirs and rivers, Denver Water’s Burri said.

Tree-thinning and other mitigation work around Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir paid off in 2002 during the Hayman fire, which scorched 138,114 acres. A key water source for the Denver area, Burri said, Cheesman’s water stayed relatively untainted by the fire.

“It shows that the work we do now,” she said, “can help much later.”

From The Taos News (Cody Hooks):

Human-caused Sardinas Canyon Fire growing slowly, disastrous Colorado fire near Ft. Garland blows up

Rather than being an unbroken block of flames, the Sardinas Canyon Fire is a patchwork, or “mosaic,” of different burn intensities; areas of the interior of the fire are largely unburned with only isolated heat spots.

Though the fire sent up a dramatic smoke plume over Taos last week and at times filled the valley with a hard-to-breathe haze, it has been a relatively easygoing fire. Unlike the Ute Park Fire, which had the potential to burn homes, businesses and infrastructure in Cimarron, Ute Park and Eagle Nest — all three communities evacuated for at least a couple days — the Sardinas Canyon Fire has threatened no structures.

Firefighters did install a sprinkler system to protect the La Junta Summer Homes at the intersection of Forest Roads 75 and 76, but those homes are about 2 miles from the perimeter of the fire, according to public information officers. Two archeological sites are being monitored and protected.

Furthermore, the Ute Park Fire was easy for firefighters to get to, meaning they attacked it more head-on with ground crews. That’s not the case for the fire in Taos County.

Firefighters are clearing debris from forest roads and old logging roads to create a fire line to contain the blaze. They’re also using bulldozers in areas where there are no roads.

The wildfire is currently within containment lines and will be allowed to burn up to them. Until then, it is not contained.

About 170 people are involved with the fire. Most of the upper management charged with keeping the fire in check are from national forests in Northern New Mexico, though some of the firefighters, helicopter pilots and hand crews are from as far away as Arizona, Montana and Oregon. The fire department with the village of Angel Fire has also helped out on the fire.

The law enforcement branch of the U.S. Forest Service is investigating the cause of the fire, but have said it was human caused.

The Carson National Forest is closed to the public. Only the Jicarilla Ranger District remains open, but under fire restrictions…

A far more worrisome wildfire [Spring Fire] is burning north of the New Mexico-Colorado state line.

The blaze started Wednesday (June 27) and has blown up, tearing through tens of thousands of acres of private, state and federal land in Costilla and Huefano counties. At least 104 homes have burned in Costilla County and potentially more in other counties, according to county and fire officials. The fire was more than 50,000 acres as of Monday (July 2) and had grown by nearly 30,000 acres as of Tuesday (July 3).

The fire is burning between Fort Garland and La Veta, primarily on private land, and evacuation centers are set up in Walsenburg and Fort Garland. A Type 2 incident management team (a level above the sort of team that’s handling the Sardinas fire) is in command of the blaze. La Veta Pass between Fort Garland and La Veta is closed to traffic.

Critical fire weather — hot temperatures, low relative humidity and erratic winds — have pushed the fire into new territory…

The Morris Creek Fire was reported Friday (June 29) on private land around the Philmont Scout Ranch in Colfax County. The fire has now spread onto the scout ranch, where crews have constructed fireline around the western edge of Carson Meadows. The fire was estimated to be about 400 acres as of Sunday (July 1) and over 1,000 as of Monday (July 2). No structures are threatened, according to Wendy Mason, a public affairs officer with State Forestry. The Philmont fire crews initially responded, and a Type 2 incident management team is taking over control of suppression efforts today (July 3). “Resources from multiple agencies are fighting this fire on the ground with additional support from aircraft,” according to a recent update…

This wildfire [Emily Fire] began Thursday (June 28) and as of Tuesday (July 3), the Gila Las Cruces Type 3 team had taken management of the fire. They are developing a plan to protect the Turkey Mountains Repeater Site, which houses five emergency communications towers as well as commercial facilities and major power transmission lines in the area. A total of 149 people are tackling the blaze, including five firefighting crews, one engine and two helicopters…

The Heron Fire started Thursday (June 28) afternoon in the Fort Heron Subdivision, where it was threatening about 30 structures. It was located off of State Road 95 and was estimated to be 10 acres. State Forestry and local firefighting crews continuing to mop up the fire and mitigate multiple hazard trees within the fire perimeter over the weekend. Approximately. It was completely contained as of Monday (July 2). The cause is under investigation.

San Antonio Fire (Valles Caldera National Preserve)

The lightning-caused fire grew to about 416 acres and was 75 percent contained as of Monday (July 1). There was no significant growth over the weekend. A local unit for the preserve is handling it. “It’s all burning internally, so there’s lots of trees and stumps smoldering,” said the preserve’s Kimberly DeVall.

Organ Fire (White Sands Missile Range, Doña Ana County)

The fire is estimated at 4,727 acres, including 194 acres of state land, and is 25 percent contained as of Saturday (June 30). The fire is burning on the White Sands Missile Range in Doña Ana County. It started June 24 off of State Road 70 near San Augustine Pass, 10 miles northeast of Las Cruces. It’s within reach of two archeological sites and the missile range.r

Blanco Fire (Kiowa National Grassland, Cibola National Forest)

The Blanco Fire has grown to 2,100 acres as of Monday (July 2). It is located approximately 5.5 miles west of Roy. It is roughly 75 percent contained. A Type 3 team, similar to the team handling the Sardinas Canyon Fire, is stationed on the Blanco Fire.

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