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Fires


My grandmother lost here summer cabin outside of Grayling, Michigan in the Great Crawford County fire on 1990.  My grandfather had hauled the cabin and out buildings up to Grayling by rail from Detroit in the 1920s (some old houses my Great Grandmother had owned).  It was one of many fires that year, but an early one caused by significantly less snow over the prior winter, high winds, and carelessness.   The cabin was gone before anyone could react as it appears to have been in the dead center of the moving flames.  I recall the story on CNN, but no one realized exactly where it was.  My grandmother never recovered.  She wasn’t the only one.  20 year later there are trees.

Forest fires happen with increasing frequency. Today in Southern California, the Sand Fire has set more than 35,000 acres of the Santa Clarita Valley ablaze.  Difficulties fighting it are not limited to temperatures hitting 101 degrees in the area and dried brush from 5 years of drought conditions.  The Soberanes Fire in Monterey County has burned 16,100 acres along the California coast between Carmel and Big Sur. The fire is bigger than the size of Manhattan.  The 778 acre McHugh Fire located on the steep terrain south of Anchorage, Alaska.  Looking at the map, it seems the west is on fire.  A larger and larger portion of the US Forest Services’ budget gets spent on fire-fighting each year – 67% in 2016.  Yet fires on Forest Service property account for only 20% of the total fire nationally (1.9 million acres or a total of over 10 million acres in 2015), but this total amount is increasing.  Warmer weather in the west has increased the length of fire season, drought has increased the risk, budgets are stagnant so means to prevent fire intensity have been reduced, The only good news is that a University of Vermont study suggests that areas where pine beetle has killed trees is actually thinner and less at risk that heathier forests, if that is a “good” thing.

My friend Dr. Chi Ho Sham did some work on forest fires on watersheds a few year back.  He found that forest fires have obvious impacts on people and our customers, but also our water supplies and our water supplies.  The ash runs off into streams and is difficult to remove at water plants because it is so fine.  Areas burned are far more subject to erosion after rain of snow melt thereby creating a need for more treatment at water plants.  This will go on for some time after the rain until groundcover can re-establish itself.  Fire retardant and water drops combat some fires although the retardant shows up in streams and water supplies with adverse impacts.  Dams and reservoirs will need more frequent dredging due to buildup, and wildlife equilibrium will be disrupted.  Forest fires make for interesting news, when they are far away, but few utilities think too much about what would happen if their watershed were impacts.  No groundwater utility has thought about impacts on surficial groundwater although that might be an interesting study.  But we should all have plans, should watch our watershed, and be cognizant that far away fires might give us the opportunity to study what could possibly go wrong at our utilities.  Meanwhile, our thoughts are with those in the realm of the conflagrations.  Be Safe!!

 

July FIRes 2016

Current Fire map – July 2016 Sources; http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/

San Fran Fire satteliteSatellite photo of fire outside San Francisco  Source NASA Earth

CNN photo forest fire CAFIre outside Santa Clarita CA July 2016Source CNN

2016 Alaska Fires

Alaska FIres

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The Union of Concerned Scientists reviewed recent wildfires in the west. One of the concerns they raised was that increased forest fires are both a climate change and a man-induced issue.  Wildfires on federal land has increased 75% on federally owned land.  Fire impacted areas are larger and impact more development which encroaches on those federal holdings.  We spend over $1 billion in fire fighting on federal lands each year.  But why?

Because many of the forest are in mountainous areas, fire season starts earlier in year with less mountain snowfall.  And that is  most years as snowfall accumulation decrease.  Temperatures are warmer, earlier with shortens the snow season.   Water runs off faster.  Of course the fact that we altered management philosophies to prevent all forest fires didn’t help because some burning is natural each year. As a result there is a huge reserve of unburned land out west.  The beetles did not help either as they left millions of acres of dead trees on mountain sides from Canada to New Mexico. Beetle infestation is clearly climate change driven.

The solutions are more difficult.  Building up next to federal land needs to be restricted.  Regulations in dealing with trees, bushes and underbrush in fire prone areas need to be enacted and enforced. Early spring fires set as control burns need to happen more frequently. But these are all local responses to a global climate problem.  That response is currently lacking.  These are leadership issues.

From a utility perspective, this issue may be significant.  We like those high, clean mountain streams.  But after a forest fire, those streams are often warmer and less clean.  The soot, ash and runoff from now barren land can create significant impacts on water plant, create major treatment alterations, increase costs, and risk contamination.  A friend some years ago suggested that utilities were instruments of social change.  The fact that we have treated water and sewer creates social change.  We need to protect water supplies and therefore we should be a part of the conversation on land use.  That requires some leadership.

 


I went back to Colorado last week and it’s dry again out there.  Ok, maybe not this past week when it rained a bit, but despite late snow (March to May), the forests are dry.  The bark beetle problem has not made things easier, so lightning from thunderstorms can easily create fires, like the fire down in Colorado Springs or the Big Meadows fire that is ongoing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The latter has been ongoing (although fortunately mostly out) for over a month, and has closed some trails in the park.  I hiked through the Fern Lake fire remnants (although virtually all the fire was around Cub Lake). That fire burned for a couple months last fall, only finally burned out in the winter after snowfall. 

 

The west is dry and “drier than in the past” is the new normal it seems in Colorado.  So now water managers are faced with three new challenges:  less water, faster runoff and more difficult water to treat.  The fires cause the loss of protective vegetation, which means less water is kept in the forest.  As a result, the tiny, light ash particles easily run off in the rain.  Ash is hard to remove without activated carbon or other advanced processes.  The loss of vegetation increases runoff, which means larger sediment content in otherwise pristine water supplies.  That can make a major impact on downstream water plants that may not have planned for such events.  The cost of fire suppression for the last 60 years confounds the current water supply and quality problems.  There are also ecological effects that may impact local economies. 

 

All this said, I am unsure what the solution is.  Clearly the climate in Colorado is changing.  It is unlikely we can alter the current course any time soon.  Instead we must adapt to the changes and attempt to mitigate the impacts on water supplies.  Creativity, innovation and likely more infrastructure will be required. Concepts like aquifer storage and recovery are coming back to the fore as a result of the current condition. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. 

 

 

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