Wildfires can cause significant negative impacts to water quality with resultant consequences for the environment and human health and safety, as well as incurring substantial rehabilitation and water treatment costs. In this paper we will illustrate how state-of-the-art wildfire simulation modeling and geospatial risk assessment methods can be brought to bear to identify and prioritize at-risk watersheds for risk mitigation treatments, in both pre-fire and post-fire planning contexts. Risk assessment results can be particularly useful for prioritizing management of hazardous fuels to lessen the severity and likely impacts of future wildfires, where budgetary and other constraints limit the amount of area that can be treated. Specifically we generate spatially resolved estimates of wildfire likelihood and intensity, and couple that information with spatial data on watershed location and watershed erosion potential to quantify watershed exposure and risk. For a case study location we focus on National Forest System lands in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States. The Region houses numerous watersheds that are critically important to drinking water supplies and that have been impacted or threatened by large wildfires in recent years. Assessment results are the culmination of a broader multi-year science-management partnership intended to have direct bearing on wildfire management decision processes in the Region. Our results suggest substantial variation in the exposure of and likely effects to highly valued watersheds throughout the Region, which carry significant implications for prioritization. In particular we identified the San Juan National Forest as having the highest concentration of at-risk highly valued watersheds, as well as the greatest amount of risk that can be mitigated via hazardous fuel reduction treatments. To conclude we describe future opportunities and challenges for management of wildfire-watershed interactions.
Thompson, Matthew P.; Scott, Joe; Langowski, Paul G.; Gilbertson-Day, Julie W.; Haas, Jessica R.; Bowne, Elise M. 2013. Assessing watershed-wildfire risks on National Forest System lands in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States. Water. 5(3): 945-971.