Effects of prescribed burning on stream water quantity, quality, and fuel loads in a small Piedmont watershed in North Carolina

PARTNERS: North Carolina Forest Service; North Carolina State University

SUMMARY: The South is heavily forested with most forests owned by the private sector. During 2008-2012, the Southeast states had an average of 38,582 wildfires reported each year, burning an average of 1.73 million acres (National Interagency Coordination Center, 2013). These fires are caused mainly by humans.

Wildfire risk is on the rise in the South due to: 1) dense forests and rapid accumulation of fuels, 2) climate change (warming) and increasing drought severity and frequency, 3) rapid urbanization, and 4) high fire-return rate of 3 to 5 years.

Wildfires are natural parts of our environment and play an essential role in most wildland ecosystems. However, they can have serious ecologic, environmental, social, and economic consequences including life and property loss, public health threats, timber loss, stressed resources in disaster prevention, and recovery efforts.

Wildfire in the South has been identified as a priority for many research programs of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture/Department of the Interior Joint Fire Science Program. The recently released National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has identified the South as one of the priority areas for fuel treatment to reduce wild fire risk.

The South leads the Nation in implementing prescribed burning as an effective management tool to reduce fire risk and severity, and potentially increase water yield from forest lands. Prescribed burning also represents one option for active forest management practices in response to climate change threats to forests and other land and water resources. Researchers know little about the long-term impacts of this practice on forest ecosystem services and sustainability.

In 2014, researchers started monitoring and collecting data in two Piedmont watersheds to test the following hypotheses: 1) Prescribed burning significantly increases soil moisture, peakflow, total water yield due to reduction of understory and over story plant transpiration, and loss of soil duff layers and 2) Prescribed burning significantly increases sediment and nutrients loading due to elevated runoff and reduced plant nutrient uptake.

EFETAC'S ROLE: In 2014, the Eastern Threat Center committed to complete this 2-3HFW2TreatmentWatershedHillForest.jpg year research project in partnership with North Carolina State University.

STATUS: Ongoing

PROGRESS: A graduate student's thesis based on this project is in progress.

Pictured: A research site burned in June 2015. Click to enlarge.


Project overview presentation

Johnny Boggs, Eastern Threat Center Biological Scientist, johnny.boggs@usda.gov or 919-549-4060

Updated July 2018

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