Megafires, Wildland Fires, and Prescribed Burns

Healthy forests are important for clean and abundant water supplies. A recent USDA Forest Service study examined how wildland fires, including megafires, and prescribed burns affect river flow.

The study is the first nationwide look at fire impacts on surface freshwater resources. Led by Dennis Hallema, research hydrologist and ORISE fellow, the research team analyzed three decades of data on fires — along with climate and river flow datasets from 168 river basins in the lower 48 states.

“The impacts of wildland fires on water resources are extremely variable across the U.S.,” says Ge Sun, co-author and research hydrologist. “Our study aims to assist with mitigation strategies that can be designed locally to suit local climate, watershed characteristics, and wildland fire conditions.”

Recent wildland fire seasons are now longer due to recurring drought, more ignition sources, and more fuels. “Our findings show that climatic variability and fire characteristics both affect river flow,” says Hallema. “Therefore regional water management strategies need to be flexible and adaptable.”

The challenge for the near future is to determine where the increased river flow can be treated economically as a source of water and used to reduce drought impacts.

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