Eagle River Watershed Council: Protecting water with fire
We are no strangers to wildfire here in the Eagle Valley. Fire is a natural phenomenon and a key process that keeps our ecosystems healthy and thriving. However, with the expansion of human development on the landscape and the combination of climate change, drought and lots of available fuel, the risk of large and destructive fires is rising.
In Colorado, four out of the five largest fires have occurred within the last three years. The effects of these severe wildfires can be devastating. Locally, we have been affected most recently by the Sylvan Lake Fire in 2021 and the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020. The blackened stumps of trees, and the boulders and rock that enormous mudslides deposited on the roadway in Glenwood Canyon are evidence of the lasting impact of this wildfire.
Large and destructive fires, like Grizzly Creek, are categorized as high-intensity, high-severity fires. In this classification, intensity refers to the energetic output of a fire, and severity refers to the ecosystem effects. These types of fires can burn lots of vegetation, including fire-tolerant species, and burn organic material in the soil including roots and microorganisms. With the loss of plants and organic matter, the burned area cannot absorb as much water during snowmelt or rain events. Instead, water picks up speed and runs through the burned area, taking with it sediment, nutrients and sometimes heavy metals that have been mobilized from the chemical reactions of burning. That material is deposited into our streams, creeks and rivers. The resulting impacts on water quality can affect fish and other animals that rely on these water sources, including we humans, who use these water sources for our drinking water.
There are mitigation techniques that can be used to reduce fire intensity and severity, and they are being actively implemented in our valley by municipalities, Eagle County and organizations including Eagle Valley Wildland, an intergovernmental program that focuses on wildfire response, planning, mitigation and community education. One strategy is to literally fight fire with fire by engaging in prescribed burns.
Prescribed, or controlled, burns are fires that are carefully planned to occur under specific conditions of wind, temperature, humidity and ground moisture to meet a specific goal, like reducing dead, built-up fuels, while also minimizing the risk of escape. During the burn, prescribed fires have minimal effects on watershed health because they tend to be low intensity and low severity. Compared to most wildfires, more living and fire-resistant plants are left unburned and more organic material is left in the soil. These burns are also closely monitored to prevent ecological or unintended damage. Eagle Valley Wildland monitors during and after their prescribed fires, and staff is trained in fire’s effects on soil conditions so they can make sure soils are not negatively impacted. The burns reduce available fuels that make an area less susceptible to severe wildfires and the subsequent harmful ecological impacts.
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Using prescribed fire to bring back fire at a frequency and low intensity that aligns with the historical fire regime is also important for natural systems and benefits the health of our watershed. This type of beneficial fire is a much-needed restart to ecosystems that have not been impacted by fire for decades or centuries. When lower-severity, lower-intensity fires occur, they remove dead vegetation and can return nutrients to the soil. For example, burning grasslands removes thatch, a built-up layer of living and dead vegetation stems, leaves and roots, that can inhibit the growth of new grass. Burning the thatch not only removes a potential fuel source, but also allows for new, healthy grasses to come back that can hold more moisture providing better forage to wildlife like deer and elk.
Similarly, wildfire can also lead to renewal of riparian vegetation and improve the overall health of riparian ecosystems. Plants that grow along our streams and rivers are crucial to watershed health, as they provide shade to keep water cool in the hot summer months, shelter and food to animals and insects, and allow for filtration that improves water quality, as runoff moves from land to waterways. Prescribed fires can be startling to see if you don’t know what they are, or if you don’t know they are planned. You can expect prescribed burns starting the first week of April and running through mid-May. Specific burn days are dependent on weather conditions. You can stay up to date by signing up for Eagle County Alerts on the ECEmergency webpage and by following Eagle Valley Wildland on Facebook.
Anna Nakae is the Projects Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit erwc.org to learn more.