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Western Water Threatened by Wildfire

Posted by Robert Westover, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Feb 08, 2016
The Negative Effects of High Intensity Wildfire on Forested Land infographic
Catastrophic wildfire affects forests by baking the ground below, causing it to become a hard-packed layer that will not absorb moisture. Photo credit: American Forest Foundation

By Tom Fry, Western Conservation Director, American Forest Foundation

Tom Fry is the Western Conservation Director of the American Forest Foundation (AFF). AFF and the U.S. Forest Service hold a long-standing partnership in pursuit of protecting and conserving the important forest benefits that come from family and individually owned forest lands across the United States and ensuring the next generation of Americans understands and value forests for all the benefits they provide.

As we get ready for the 2016 wildfire season, a recent report from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) looks at one of the most important, but often overlooked, issues related to forest health: the relationship between water supply and the risk of fire to our forests.

Using U.S. Forest Service data, the report entitled Western Water Threatened by Wildfire: It’s Not Just a Public Lands Issue examines the wildfire risk across the West. It focuses on the need to protect important public water supply watersheds. The report’s authors argue that solutions require a shared, public-private approach.

AFF researchers examined land in 11 Western states for wildfire risk. They found more than a third of the 145 million acres deemed at high risk for wildfire fall on private and family-owned lands, not public land.

When they narrowed their focus to the 34 million acres of high fire risk lands in important water supply watersheds, the researchers found 40 percent of these lands were either private or family-owned. In some states, like drought-stricken California and Oregon, private and family landowners own more land in this category than the federal government.

The relationship between wildfire risk and watersheds is significant. Our forests, whether public or private-owned, are intimately linked with clean water.

Forests act as a natural water filter and storage system. They keep water clear, regulate streamflow and reduce flooding. When damaged by catastrophic fire, forests lose their ability to absorb and filter rainfall. The consequences can be runoff that fouls streams and rivers with mud, soil and debris, contaminating the water supply.

Although only 31 percent of the West is forested, 65 percent of the public water supply comes from these forests. In fact, almost 64 million westerners get their clean drinking water supply from surface water that comes from these forests. Simply put, if these forests aren’t protected, their water supply is at risk.

The researchers surveyed more than 1,200 Western family woodland owners for the report. The good news is these owners want to do the right thing to protect these forests from wildfires. The survey found they are motivated to act to reduce the threat of wildfire and to help protect clean water. But also noted in the survey, is that what prevents them from acting is the high cost of implementing forest management activities, such as fuels reduction or thinning.

The Forest Service continues to support AFF in its endeavors to engage woodland owners in mitigating wildfire risk to protect clean water and the other benefits we receive from our forests. AFF currently has projects in Colorado and Oregon, and is currently expanding across the region.

The after effects of a high intensity wildfire in a forested watershed
The after effects of a high intensity wildfire in a forested watershed. Photo credit: Chris Stewart, U.S. Forest Service
Category/Topic: Forestry