Wildfires and Water
Chair, Board of Trustees
Robert C. Renner, PE, BCEE
Large sections of the United States have been experiencing abnormally dry summers, and
that often means forest fires. In 2012, approximately 43,000 wildfires were reported in the
United States, burning a total of 6. 4 million acres, or 10,000 square miles of land. The severity
and frequency of wildfires in the western United States has increased over the past decade due
to both long-term fire suppression efforts as well as climate change.
In Colorado and Southern California, where we live and work, we see firsthand the effects of
wildfires on our communities. Southern California has been experiencing below-average rainfall
for years, vegetation is abnormally dry, and there are more people living close to forested areas.
In Colorado Springs, just an hour south of Denver, wildfires the last two years have destroyed
almost 1,000 homes. The Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 was deemed at the time the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. But that title was short-lived as the Black Forest fire of 2013 surpassed it in the number of homes lost.
These wildfires have far-reaching effects beyond just the loss of forestation and homes. Burned areas are vulnerable to erosion
and mud slides that can fill up sources of drinking water with ash, silt, fire retardant chemicals, and contaminants, impacting both
water quality and quantity. Wildfires can change the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil and streams that may negatively
impact the water quality by increasing turbidity, metal, and organic content of the water. Additionally, severely burned watersheds
can give rise to flooding, peak flows, and debris flows. These various effects may necessitate changes in water treatment operations
or significant new capital investments.
Currently there is not enough available information that sufficiently assesses the impacts of wildfires on water utility infrastructure
and operations, as well as water utilities’ responses to manage the impacts during and after the fire.
In order to capture water utilities’ experiences dealing with wildfires, the Water Research Foundation organized a workshop in
Denver, Colorado on April 4–5, 2013 for utilities and other key stakeholders in wildfire management and post-fire restoration to
exchange information and lessons learned. The workshop addressed implications for water infrastructure and services provided
during and after the wildfires, public communication strategies, and strategies for prevention and restoration.
Additionally, WRF partnered with the Canadian Water Network on a follow-up workshop in Calgary on September 18–19, 2013,
which focused on the state-of-the-science assessment of forest management options to address threats to water supplies. The
article, “Effects of Wildfire on Drinking Water Utilities,” included in this issue of Advances in Water Research, summarizes results and
lessons learned from the Denver and Calgary workshops.
Both of these workshops resulted in the identification of a number of research gaps that may be appropriate for future funding.
WRF is in the process of identifying research partners to help tackle these issues to address critical research gaps identified by
Wildfires pose a very real threat to both the quality and quantity of source water available for many drinking water utilities
throughout many areas of the country. While it is impossible to prevent forest fires, there are important steps utilities can take to
prepare for them and to mitigate their impact.