Over the past few weeks, 14 highly destructive wildfires erupted across Northern California destroying more than 213,000 acres, 5,700 structures and taking 41 lives. It was the deadliest week of fires in the state’s history. The immediate and tireless response from firefighters, medical personnel, volunteers, and community members to contain the fires and provide relief for the thousands of victims has been monumental. At WaterNow Alliance, our thoughts are with all of those affected by this unprecedented tragedy.
While California is no stranger to wildfires, experts believe that the changing climate is causing them to become more frequent and more severe. As our friends and colleagues in Sonoma begin the long road to recovery, a few critical questions arise: Why were these fires so severe? How do severe fires impact our water systems and watersheds? And how can we protect our watersheds and communities from extreme fires in the future?
Why were the fires so severe?
The exact cause of the fires is still unknown but fire experts are saying that there are a number of interconnected factors that created prime conditions for them. On October 8th, when the fires began, there was a red flag warning indicating extreme fire danger related to low humidity, strong winds, and dry vegetation.
California just finished its hottest summer on record, and in combination with stressed and dying vegetation from the 5-year drought, this created a plentitude of fuel to quickly spread the fires. The present situation is exacerbated by a century of largely well-intentioned forest management strategies designed to suppress forest fires (even when they’re not at risk of damaging structures or harming people). Throughout California’s forests, this has resulted in increased density of vegetation and lack of available water to meet the demand.
How do severe fires impact our water systems?
Extreme fires can have lasting implications on our water systems and water quality. Upstream in our watersheds, fires can trigger severe erosion and ash-laden runoff leading to increased debris, sedimentation, and blue-green algae blooms in our streams and reservoirs. This excess material may require additional downstream water treatment before it’s suitable for drinking water supplies. Additionally, habitats that are home to endangered fish species like steelhead trout are expected to be adversely impacted.
Downstream in urban areas, while the effected communities’ water systems are for the most part back up and running, water managers are concerned about the impacts of thick layers of ash containing toxins like paint, pesticides and plastics that may enter waterways and the drinking water supply. These materials may pose serious health risks to people and wildlife in the coming months. Some communities like Fountain Grove in Santa Rosa had boil water notices in effect following the fires and sewer lines have been closed off to prevent ash and charred waste from entering municipal water treatment facilities.
How can we protect our watersheds and communities from extreme fires?
We can’t definitively say how much of Northern California’s recent destructive fires were directly associated with overly dense forests or climate change. However, as California prepares for a “new normal” of more extreme climate variability, thinking more holistically about how we manage our watersheds and forests has the potential to reduce the frequency and severity of extreme wildfires, and to protect our vital water supplies and communities.
This is especially critical in our headwater forests, the west slope of the Sierra Nevadas and the Southern Cascades which drain into 20 major reservoirs. Current and historic forest management strategies in California have led to forests that are overgrown with small trees. Some forests have also undergone a shift from conifer forests to shrublands as a result of repeated tree-killing events related to drought and extreme fire events. Today our forests are highly vulnerable to catastrophic fires. Additionally, some argue that these high-density forests may impact our water supply by consuming too much groundwater and not generating sufficient runoff into rivers and streams.
In 2016, California enacted AB 2480, which defined source watersheds as an integral part of the state’s water system infrastructure. This new law recognizes that watershed restoration and management is an essential complement to built water system infrastructure and is necessary for a more reliable water supply.
Just like any other critical piece of water infrastructure– a new sewage treatment plant or groundwater infiltration basin – as water managers we have to begin prioritizing our watersheds as vital natural infrastructure deserving of protection and investment. AB 2480 is an extremely important and positive step in reimagining our relationship with watershed forests. You can learn more about California’s key source water restoration needs in the Pacific Forest Institute’s comprehensive report.
Federal and state agencies, local government, and private landowners have a major challenge ahead of them to alter current forest management practices. Collaboration and effective funding options will be critical.
While the residents of Northern California begin to rebuild their communities, WaterNow Alliance is committed to being a resource and advocate for smart watershed management that will build more resilient communities and help prevent future tragedies.