Watersheds At High Risk for Wildfires

Next week is the official start of wildfire season and our forestland continues to be in extreme threat of catastrophic wildfires.  As many Californians know, our forests are home to millions of trees, wildlife and many homes. So when a wildfire tears through hundreds of thousands of acres like it did in the Rim Fire of 2013 and the King Fire of 2014, forestland is scorched, but the fire can also burn up our precious water resources.


High severity wildfire is increasingly becoming more frequent, putting California’s watersheds are at risk both in the short-term and long-term. In the short term, as a wildfire runs its course, it removes organic carbon from the soil, impacting its ability to hold onto water. When this occurs on a slope, it can cause erosion and cause sediment to run into our watersheds. In the long-term, if a fire has caused severe damage on the soil, it can reverse hundreds of thousands of years of natural soil building processes and decrease the forests’ ability to regrow and negatively impacting the watersheds purity and taste.


It’s crucial to take preventive steps to not only prevent wildfires but also maintain our watersheds. In 2014, The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the U.S. National Forest Service released a cost analysis on the economic benefits of fuel treatments. The study found that the cost of fire suppression and post-fire restoration are 2-3 times the cost of fuel treatments. More importantly, fuel treatments – reducing the carbon fuel in a forest – can reduce fire size, severity and rate of spread. For example, a fuel reduction in the Sierra Nevada could potentially increase water yield by up to 6 percent.


Since the Sierra Nevada produces more than 60 percent of drinking water for all of California, a 6 percent increase in water yield can provide more water to millions of people. With California entering into its fourth year of the drought, it can no longer afford to react to fires – California must take preventive measures to not only save our forests but also our water.