Pre-fire planning as part of community and habitat planning

Post-fire planning does not always begin with smoldering slopes. Rather, it has an important and growing role in general, specific and facility plans. The frequency of wildland fires in the western states is expected to increase by 12 to 70 percent by the year 2070, based on alternative IPCC scenarios. Planning for the flooding, sedimentation, and nutrient-releasing effects of fires should increasingly become a part of managing open spaces, such as:

  • Preserves, land trusts, and public open spaces
  • Ranches and watershed lands
  • Recreation areas
  • Universities and their land holdings
  • Reservoirs and their sphere of influence
  • Infrastructure (water and wastewater and utility pipelines)
  • Inlet protection
  • Buffers and expansion areas adjacent to airports, quarries, military facilities, landfills, and reservoirs

General and specific plans for valleys and canyons downstream from fire-prone headwaters may wish to include post-fire management elements. Elements of a post-fire plan anticipate the effects of actual fires, drawing up likely response scenarios and providing sufficient buffers to provide basic levels of protection. They also include provisions for special habitat measures, where warranted, as well as for monitoring effects on habitat-management or enhancement programs.

Districts and land trusts with suppressed-response or controlled-burning programs can draw upon Balance’s practical expertise to evaluate likely effects on channels, stream corridors and coastal resources downstream from potential burn areas.

Similarly, larger water systems may wish to include the effects of watershed-scale fires in their planning. Balance provides the expertise needed to plan for:

  • Vulnerability assessments and disaster plans, with preliminary and advanced simulations of flooding, erosion, sedimentation, and biostimulation, and
  • Watershed sanitary surveys, in which the incidence and effects of fire-flood-sediment pulses should logically be included in both
    • evaluating the immediate water-quality effects of runoff during the initial season, and
    • projecting effects on water treatment of the gradual multi-year decline in persistent turbidity, particularly from watersheds with silty soils or shale and mudstone geology.

Balance staff have been working on watershed studies and more specifically fire-related flow, sediment, and water-quality issues in all of these arenas for nearly 30 years. Our hydrologists, geomorphologists, water-quality specialists and engineers have:

  • Measured the effects of fires on aquatic habitat for counties, Resource Conservation Districts, and individual large landowners
  • Provided expert testimony on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies on operationally managing ash and sediment following watershed-scale wildfires
  • Designed protection programs from post-fire flooding, sedimentation and slope-failure hazards for schools, ranches, hotels and retreats, summer camps, and canyon homeowner groups
  • Evaluated the effects of post-fire sediment pulses on the facilities of flood-control agencies and cities
  • Developed water-quality action plans for small and large water systems faced with partial or complete burns of their watersheds. Helped planning staff incorporate provisions for post-fire periods in local general plans or specific plans.
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