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The wildfire story isn’t over -- not just because cooler, wetter days have arrived and the interagency "Hotshot Crews" of firefighters have packed up and gone home.
The Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, has long since burned itself out. But the consequences of this huge disturbance are still being felt in the ecosystem that burned and the human community that was a part of it.
Started as a prescribed burn on May 4, this fire escaped control and was declared a wildfire on May 5. It was not contained until June 6. It destroyed some 260 homes and did an estimated $300 million worth of damage to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But the Los Alamos fire (actually one of several in the area this summer) stands as an example of all the after-fire stories that often need to be written.
One of the biggest concerns in the case of Los Alamos was possible release of radioactive materials -- a worry that proved mostly unnecessary. More of a problem was potential flooding from stormwater runoff on the now-bare slopes, or landslides where soil-stabilizing plant cover had been destroyed.
Why Cover Fire Effects?
The after-effects of wildfires hit people where they live. Beyond human casualties or loss of homes, the less obvious human and environmental impacts of wildfires are equally important. They affect the livelihood of ranchers, fishing guides, and sawmill hands. They help whole ecosystems regenerate. They can cause other unforeseen impacts like erosion, landslides, and water pollution. They provide jobs for regional economies (or take them away).
1. What is going to happen to recently burned areas during the next heavy rain?
2. Are any parts of the burned area especially prone to landslides? Check with your state geological survey (link list at http://www.kgs.ukans.edu/AASG/) and the USGS’ National Landslide Information Center (http://landslides.usgs.gov/), local Soil & Water Conservation Districts and agencies, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. What structures (homes, roads, dams) face landslide hazard? There is a national map showing landslide susceptibility at http://landslides.usgs.gov/html_files/landslides/nationalmap/national.html, but it is a general overview.
3. How much of the soil in nearby burned areas may have been made water-repellent (hydrophobic) by the fire? Check with local soil scientists and land-managers of the burned area. What will the impact of hydrophobic soil be on water bodies and forest regeneration? What measures (e.g. raking) will be taken to mitigate the problem?
4. What mitigation and rehabilitation plans have been made by land managers for the burned area? Is there funding, and is it enough?
5. What do professionals say about the ecological effects of the fire? Was it of stand-replacing intensity, or did it only clear out underbrush? What species in the burned area depend on fire for regeneration? How has the area’s fire history affected the current ecological situation?
6. What do state fish and wildlife officials say about the effects of the fire on fisheries and aquatic communities?
7. If there have been recent prescribed burns in your area, did they achieve the desired effect?
8. How is fire handled in the management of major tracts of privately owned wildland near you? State forests?
Background and Contex
The Los Alamos (Cerro Grande) fire shows some of the kinds of "after-effect" stories that come up. For example:
- Worries about erosion and landslides (which actually might include mud, debris, or rolling rocks) in areas where vegetation that stabilized the land had been destroyed by fire.
- Worries about flooding of streams receiving large amounts of runoff from the fire areas. Vegetation and litter that once slowed stormwater runoff are often destroyed by fire.
- Worries about water quality in streams receiving runoff from fire areas. The runoff may carry extra sediment and ash, which can kill fish by robbing streams of oxygen.
- Worries about the mobilization of other special hazards or materials. The biggest concern at Los Alamos was the possible release of radioactivity (it turned out to be minimal). But chemical waste, and even natural asbestos fibers, were also concerns. Such hazardous substances might move in the air (as dust) or water after a fire.
Post-fire mitigation and rehabilitation projects may also deserve coverage. The first priority of such projects may be to lessen the immediate harmful impacts of landslides, flooding, water pollution, and other hazards. In other cases, restoration of the long-term balance of the wildland ecosystem is the goal. At Los Alamos, a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team was formed by representatives from federal land-managing agencies.
Such efforts include:
- Seeding bare soil with various species of grass.
- Felling snags and hazardous trees and terracing hillsides to lessen erosion.
- Restoration of fire lines created by bulldozers
- Erosion prevention measures like silt fences and straw bales
- Culvert maintenance or improvement.
Every landscape is unique -- a proposition again exemplified by Los Alamos. That fire included parts of the Bandelier National Monument, and the fire exposed hitherto unnoticed settlement sites of ancient Americans, the Anasazi whose civilization is represented at Mesa Verde. Not only did the fire open new opportunities for archeological study, but it also created the need to protect the new sites.
Fire sites near you may not have nuclear waste or Indian ruins, but there are probably some special circumstances or resources that may have post-fire implications: hazardous wastes, pipelines, human settlements, fishery resources, grazing areas, and many kinds of recreational activities -- from skiing to kayaking.
Wildfires are both bad news and good news. Many of the after-effects of fires are actually good for ecosystems and ultimately people. At the time when houses are burning, it can be hard to remember that fires are often essential mechanisms by which ecosystems stay healthy and perpetuate themselves. Some tree species need fire in order to release seeds and reproduce. Fire can thin out a forest’s understory, giving seedlings the openings they need to flourish.
- National Forest offices (http://www.fs.fed.us/links/forests.shtml)
- Bureau of Land Management state offices (http://www.blm.gov/nhp/directory/index.htm)
- Bureau of Indian Affairs (http://fire.nifc.nps.gov/bia/)
- State forestry departments (http://126.96.36.199/index.html)
U.S. Geological Survey
The USGS Wildfire Theme Page (http://www.usgs.gov/themes/wildfire.html) offers links to a variety of USGS resources related to wildfire. Call Catherine Haecker at (707) 442-1329 to discuss wildlife impacts of fire, Karen Wood at (703) 648-4447 to discuss mapping fires, or Butch Kinerney to discuss water issues surrounding fires at (703) 648-4732.
The USGS conducts a wide range of activities and studies that bear directly on post-fire effects. Overview fact sheet on USGS fire research: http://www.usgs.gov/themes/wildfire.html. This work is carried out through the USGS’ network of regional labs and state offices. For example:
- National Wetlands Research Center (Lafayette, LA). See fact sheet with photos at: http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/firecolo.pdf.
- Florida Caribbean Science Center (Gainesville, FL). See fire ecology flier at http://www.fcsc.usgs.gov/Greater_Florida_Everglades/Ever_Center_Fliers/snyderflier.pdf and overview of USGS fire research in Southeast at http://biology.usgs.gov/pr/newsrelease/1999/9-16.html.
- Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (Jamestown, ND). See paper on effects of fire on bird populations in mixed-grass prairie http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/1999/firebird/firebird.htm.
- Western Ecological Research Center (Sacramento, CA). See fire backgrounder at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/sngc/dendro.htm, http://www.werc.usgs.gov/sngc/fire.htm, and http://www.werc.usgs.gov/sngc/charcoal_data.htm. WERC includes the Sierra Nevada Global Change Research Program, which explores climate/wildfire links. Overview of USGS western fire research: http://biology.usgs.gov/pr/newsrelease/1999/9-16b.html.
- Midcontinent Ecological Science Center (Fort Collins, CO). See overview of fire ecology studies around Bandelier National Monument, http://www.mesc.usgs.gov/projects/landscape-fire-ecology.html.
USDA Forest Service
- Because of the vast tracts of forest it administers, USFS is one of the agencies most involved with wildfire. Most of its Web resources are collected on its Fire and Aviation Web page (http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/). A good listing of USFS public affairs contacts (headquarters, regions, and research stations) is at http://www.fs.fed.us/intro/directory/pao/.
- USFS extensive fire research is organized under regional research stations, which may in turn include various labs, demonstration forests, and other projects. Most of this structure, with Web links, is outlined at http://www.fs.fed.us/links/research.shtml. The research station near you is likely to be a key to information and experts relevant to your region, and probably has its own PIO. Station Web sites often contain staff phone directories and are often searchable. Obviously, some regions (e.g. Rocky Mountain) are more fire-oriented than others (e.g. Northeastern).
- Rocky Mountain Research Station (http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/) includes the Missoula, MT, Fire Sciences Lab (http://www.firelab.org/). Press contact: Sherri Richardson-Dodge (503) 808-2137, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) is a searchable compilation of information about the fire ecology of some 900 plant and 100 animal species, http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/index.html. Cam Johnston, (406) 329-4810, email@example.com. - Pacific Northwest Research Station (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/) includes the Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/fera/). Press contact: Dave Tippets, (801) 625-5434, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Pacific Southwest Research Station (http://www.psw.fs.fed.us/) includes the Riverside Fire Lab (http://www.rfl.psw.fs.fed.us/). Press contact: Connie Gill, (510) 242-2465. - Southern Research Station (http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/index.htm) Press contact: Bruce Kinzel, (404) 347-7240.
Joint Fire Science Program
A handy source of fire experts is the USDA/USDI Joint Fire Science Program. Its board and advisory group are listed on the Web at http://www.nifc.gov/joint_fire_sci/jointfiresci.html.
National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (Tallahassee, FL).
A source of info on how to do it right: (850) 521-2080 and http://fire.r9.fws.gov/pftc/.
National Association of State Foresters
Site includes a directory of state foresters. At http://www.stateforesters.org/.
"Managing the Impact of Wildfires on Communities and the Environment: A Report to the President In Response to the Wildfires of 2000," by Departments of Agriculture and Interior: http://www.whitehouse.gov/CEQ/firereport.pdf.
"Yellowstone Fires and Their Legacy," by Rocky Barker, Idaho Falls Post Register. The ultimate depth piece on 1988 Yellowstone fire effects, done in 1996, still online at http://www.idahonews.com/yellowst/yelofire.htm.
Reprinted with permission. Published in Environment Writer newsletter October 2000, by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.