There is no mistaking that 2020 has been one rough year. Nearly every aspect of our lives has been impacted by COVID-19, but really, that’s hardly the half of it. This year has also brought an economic downturn, murder hornets, a crazy election cycle, and monstrous natural disasters most notably tragic wildfires.
From Australia in January to California and the rest of the US Pacific coastal states this summer, wildfires have ravaged communities in both developed human landscapes and in the wild ecosystems we all enjoy. Though many have argued that there is some natural benefit to fires, few are speaking of fires of this size and magnitude. Indeed, many of the fires of 2020 have broken — and broken again — records for size, intensity, and human or ecological damage.
Many communities that are left behind find themselves struggling to pick up the pieces. The majority have goals of building back to what was before, only stronger and more resilient. Of the many considerations that those trying to rebuild must consider, the way wildfires will impact their water quality is one of the most important.
Assessing our water supply
We all know that water quality is a very, very important part of our lives. Though defining good water quality can be a challenge for most people, we can all agree that in general, it means water that is without contaminants that will make us sick and with a good, refreshing taste and smell. It is something many of us have grown to take for granted until we suddenly don’t have it anymore.
The exact impacts of wildfires on water quality are not necessarily well understood. Many scientists are still working on figuring out exactly how wildfires impact our water supply. This can include things like available safe drinking water, but also things like wildlife habitat and irrigation water availability.
Directly after a fire, we can expect to see ash and other particulates start to settle everywhere, including in our water supply. Ash from natural sources such as trees or other vegetation is generally considered a nutrient booster for the soils it lands on, but we can’t be sure about the plastics, metals, and who knows what else that gets burned up when fires travel through human landscapes. This contamination in our water systems could pose real health risks for years following a significant burn.
Impact on a larger scale
These mega- or now giga-fires can cause even more damage after they’ve passed. An example of this involves soil erosion. In a healthy, green landscape, the trees and other vegetation have roots that work to effectively hold the soils in place. Vegetation is adapted to fire to some degree and can typically recover from low to moderate intensity burns. But really hot, destructive fires can kill everything and leave the soils without protection from rain or other erosive forces.
Without any roots holding the soils in place, they are free to go, for instance, down steep drainage in a rainstorm causing a mudslide which can wreak havoc on communities that are getting things back together. Not only that, but even mild upticks in erosion can clog water filtration systems and make cleaning our water a greater challenge.
In a larger context, a changing climate that links drought, wildfires, and limited water supplies can also have an impact on global food production. For instance, long before the devastating wildfires in Australia this year, a prolonged drought was cutting into food production ability. The drought limited food production and ultimately led to more destructive fires that further limited food production and may have damaged water supplies.
Wildfires won’t go away
So what is there to do about it? How do communities become more resilient to wildfires and everything they bring? We know wildfires will never completely go away (and that isn’t a bad thing) and that they are likely to get larger, more frequent, and more intense in the coming years due to climate change (this is a bad thing).
Part of this is because our climate is changing. Of course, this is a larger, global issue that can seem impossible for one person or family to do much about. But change is happening, slowly. More and more world leaders are recognizing the need for change and companies are starting to feel the pressure from consumers to lead the charge. Being an advocate for a greener future and leading by example will encourage others to step forward as well.
From a direct fire and water supply protection standpoint, there are also a few things that can be done. For one, always build a safety zone around your home that will limit a fire’s ability to reach it. Second, support and help out with initiatives that help reduce fuels such as supporting prescribed fire to manage undergrowth or encouraging the restoration of natural wetlands and native, fire-adapted vegetation in your communities.
Water quality is intrinsically linked to wildfires in our landscapes today. Wildfires have the potential to damage water quality directly by producing an influx of particulates in supplies or indirectly by increasing the likelihood of landslides and food insecurity. With a changing climate, we know these destructive fires are not likely to disappear so protecting ourselves is the next best option. Advocate for policy changes that reduce the impacts of climate change, build defensible space around your home, and promote science-based forest management activities that help create a more resilient landscape for all of us.
Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming. You can keep up with his writing on his Twitter.
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