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Wildland Fire Research: Water Supply and Ecosystem Protection

Wildland fires do not just destroy trees, vegetation, wildlife and structures that get in their paths. They can also severely affect water quality by causing soil erosion, increased flooding and debris flow. At the same time, fires can result in the resuspension of legacy mine and industrial waste that has settled in river bottoms.

Following a fire, an ecosystem can be dramatically altered. Loss of vegetation promotes erosion and changing soil qualities can impact the type of vegetation that grows. Native species important to ecological recovery and health may have difficulty becoming established as non-native and fast growing species thrive. Ecosystem diversity becomes threatened.  

Research is critical to better understand how fires affect water quality and supply and the overall health of an ecosystem. Studies are needed to learn more about the impact of fires on water treatment plant processes, infiltration and the flow of groundwater supplies. This information can be used to protect the safety of drinking water and to assess whether a water supply is vulnerable to the impacts of fires.

Erosion impacts on stream flows and contamination as well as impacts on soil quality are important to understand regrowth and restoration of fire-impacted areas. Research questions include:

  • What are best watershed practices for protecting water quality from a wildfire?
  • What changes occur in organic carbon mobilization due to wildland fires?
  • What legacy mercury and lead have been found to be released into the air in the plumes of wildland fires and washed into streams and groundwater?
  • Can prescribed burns be managed to prevent or reduce reemission of toxic compounds in the soil?

Research Highlights

  • Researchers are investigating the direct and secondary interrelated impacts of extreme weather events and climate change on surface water and ground water quality. The goal is to develop cost-effective management options that address these impacts. One aspect of this work is to better understand wildfire impacts on ground and surface water. The research is supported by the Extreme Event Impacts on Air Quality and Water Quality with a Changing Global Climate.
  • Researchers are studying land-use based policies related to agricultural nitrogen and wildland fires to improve air and water quality. The research is one in a series of STAR grants on Particulate Matter and Related Pollutants in a Changing World.
  • Exposure modeling is being conducted to evaluate where asbestos from mining areas travels if re-released during a wildfire. The goal is to improve understanding of the potential impacts on public health.