Effects of wildland fires and fuel treatment strategies on water quantity across the contiguous United States

: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station; Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE)

A technician managing a prescribed fireSUMMARY: Wildland fires have always been part of natural ecosystems. Although local studies suggest that these fires can have great impacts on water supply and peak flow in rivers, the effects across the contiguous United States strongly depend on the type of landscape and forest management practices. Fire hazard increases with a growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, so it is of vital importance to create a toolbox to help land managers better manage high-risk areas and align regional and national priorities formulated in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The main objective of this project is to produce new practical knowledge on wildland fire impacts on water quantity and quality across the contiguous United States, provide scientific arguments to enhance the resilience of forest ecosystems, and assist decision making with regard to broad-scale prescribed fuel treatments so that limited resources can be optimized by region or landscape locations, potentially reducing the costs of such treatments.

Right: Prescribed fires reduce fuel loads and fire risk, and may have a significant impact on streamflow leaving the watershed.













Above: A comprehensive study of the effects of wildland fire on stream water quality and quantity combines empirical data and hydrological modeling. Click to enlarge.

EFETAC scientists and partners are conducting research with funding support through the Joint Fire Science Program.

STATUS: Ongoing

PROGRESS: Researchers have completed the hydrological analysis of an initial selection of watersheds (below) throughout the conterminous United States. They are presently developing a database that combines flow data, watershed characteristics, fire data, and climate data in order to derive assessments of post-wildland fire change.


Map of study sites









Researchers are in the process of estimating wildland fire impacts on streamflow in watersheds in different parts of the United States, by combining spatial datasets and flow records using a water balance model for watersheds
(Water Supply Stress Index, or WaSSI). Click to enlarge.


Project website (USDA Southeast Regional Climate Hub)

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CONTACT: Ge Sun, Eastern Threat Center Research Hydrologist, ge.sun@usda.gov or 919-549-4070

Updated June 2017

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