While many wildfires cause little damage to the land and pose few threats to natural resources and people downstream, some fires create situations that require special efforts to prevent additional damage after wildfires. Loss of vegetation exposes soil to erosion; runoff may increase and cause flooding, sediments may move downstream and damage houses or fill reservoirs and put endangered species and community water supplies at-risk.
The Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response program addresses these situations on USFS lands with the goal of keeping National Forest visitors and employees safe while recreating and working. Another BAER program objective protects critical natural resources such as water quality from further damage during rainstorm events.
Water is one of the most important natural resources flowing from forests. The Forest Service manages the largest single source of water in the U.S. with about 18 percent originating from 193 million acres of land. A network of water and watershed resource specialists support stewardship efforts at all levels of the organization to promote healthy, sustainable watersheds fundamental to ecosystems and people.
A watershed is the drainage area where water from rain or melting snow and ice drains downhill into a body of water such as a river, stream, lake, reservoir, pond, estuary, wetland, aquifer, sea, or ocean. BAER hydrologists and watershed resource specialists are currently assessing the condition and response of the watersheds within the Dixie burned area.
Inyo National Forest watershed resource specialists Casey Shannon and Michael Wiese have been assessing the Dixie burned area for hazardous materials for threats from increased runoff and erosion that can impact the water quality of lakes and streams and cause soil contamination, along with public safety concerns with hazmat. They evaluate burned structures and infrastructure located on NF system lands that include various developed recreation sites, campgrounds, road and trail bridges, and sites with Special Use Permit authorizations. The ash residue of burned structures are known to contain several chemicals and toxic metals that if not contained and eventually removed, will migrate off-site into the soil or waterbodies with increases of runoff during rainstorms and can also become airborne from strong wind events.