Wildfires & Watersheds: New science brings new insights | Life in the Watershed — The Tri-Lakes Tribune

Slopes above Cheesman Reservoir after the Hayman fire photo credit Denver Water.

Here’s a guest column from the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District (Bill Banks) that’s running in the Tri-Lakes Tribune:

How do wildfires impact our watersheds?

This seemingly straightforward question actually has a variety of answers, and some are quite complex. First, here are the more evident issues:

Fire retardants enter our streams, which degrades water quality.

The soil in a burn area can become hydrophobic — it actually repels water!

This increases surface runoff and erosion and can lead to devastating mudslides, flash floods and debris flows that dump soil, rocks and trees into our streams and reservoirs. These water-driven incidents endanger our citizens and significantly impact water quality for wildlife and people.

According to a recent article published by Eos.org, new science is revealing a variety of risks to surface water after a wildfire. For example, after two large fires in California, environmental engineers identified benzene (a known carcinogen) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water distribution network where wildfires had overtaken communities, burning houses and plastic pipes.

Wildfires in areas that are predominantly wilderness — such as the foothills of Pikes Peak — present another set of challenges for watersheds. The article points out that different trees release different metals when burned. Ponderosa pines might release iron, manganese and other metals absorbed from the soil and air; aspen and spruce trees might emit lead and copper. Scientists are studying this ash and sediment’s geochemical reactions in water to more clearly understand the impact to water quality.

Clearly, the type of burn area — wilderness with vegetation or a community with structures — will affect what ends up in the surface water. Additional considerations that impact runoff and water quality include these questions: How much of the watershed burned? Was the fire behavior considered extreme, as with Colorado’s Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire?

We can continue to expect “extreme fire behavior” in the future

In a recent statement, Monte Williams, the forest supervisor for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, said: “The number of large fires and extreme fire behavior we are seeing on our forests this year is historic.” In fact, according to the U.S. Forest Service, the wildfire-management environment has profoundly changed over the last few decades:

The fire season lasts longer.

Fires are larger and, on average, burn more acres each year.

Fire behavior is more extreme.

To address these challenges, the Forest Service and its many partner organizations — including the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control & Greenway District — are collaborating to support a Wildland Fire Management Strategy in which a key component is creating “fire-adapted communities.”

In a fire-adapted community, residents are knowledgeable about the risks of wildfire and engaged in wildfire mitigation efforts. This means everyone in the community — including individual homeowners — actively participates in mitigation projects. This reduces the impact of wildfire and helps to protect our watershed.

We can ALL help. Here’s how…

When you participate in mitigation efforts — at your home, neighborhood, and public lands — you are contributing to a fire-adapted community. The many benefits include improved public safety, water quality, restored wildlife habitat and a healthy creek system. Find tips from Firewise USA to help protect your home from wildfire at tinyurl.com/y4kzcet4.

Bill Banks is the executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. The District was established in 2009, to manage, administer and fund capital improvements necessary to maintain critical infrastructure and improve the watershed for the benefit of everyone in the Fountain Creek watershed.

Leave a Reply