Wildfire is a four-letter word in California.
No need to go into detail about the recent devastating fires in the area; Moonshine Ink and papers across the country have written plenty about the tragic Camp, Mendocino Complex, and numerous other fires that have destroyed not only acres of California land, but many of the structures and lives within.
Instead, let us consider a different angle on this natural disaster: wildfire’s effects on local water, meadows, wetlands, and riparian zones (aka the Truckee River watershed). When it comes to a high-severity wildfire, water ecosystems might not be the first thing on people’s minds.
Yet in the case of our watersheds, apparent opposites fire and water have an interconnected fate that fire service professionals and watershed experts alike have learned not to deny. When a catastrophic wildfire meets an ill-prepared (read: overcrowded with vegetation) watershed, the water supply will suffer not just immediately – excessive sediment loading clouding water, harming underwater life, clogging intakes, and eroding riverbanks — but for years to come.
In fact, the Truckee River is still suffering the lasting effects from a catastrophic fire over 18 years ago.
The Martis Fire, which broke out on Father’s Day in 2001, burned over 14,500 acres between Reno and Truckee, including portions of the Truckee River corridor. Staff members of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Nevada compare stretches of the river running through Reno to chocolate milk to this day because of the sediment loading.
“That fire jumped over Bronco [Creek] and Gray Creek watersheds, and those watersheds have always been somewhat problematic,” said Mickey Hazelwood, Eastern Sierra Nevada program director with TNC. “They flow out of Nevada westward into the Truckee River. There’s always been some sediment loading coming out of there, but after that landscape burned, [Martis Fire] was a pretty intense fire, it really destabilized those already steep sub-watersheds.”
Now, anytime a rain event happens, Bronco and Gray creeks send sediment downstream. In particular, the wet winter of 2017 dumped large amounts of water and snow into these two creeks, yielding what Hazelwood described as “a huge slug of mud and debris into the Truckee River.”
The excess amounts of sediment mean a different approach for water authorities when it comes to prepping the drinking supply. If standard chemical water cleaning methods aren’t effective during a wildfire, Reno-Sparks water purveyor Truckee Meadows Water Authority has backup plans. That’s according to John Enloe, TMWA’s director of Natural Resources Planning and Management.
“If it’s a short-term event, say there’s a catastrophic wildfire and then you get some thunderstorm event and you’re washing down a lot of ash, we would let that water go by and run the system off our wells,” Enloe said.
TMWA has 90-plus municipal wells that could meet average-day demands for weeks. Enloe explained another likely solution during a wildfire is for the water authority to implement chemical feed facilities to treat the water on a “temporary emergency basis.”
And should water service lines melt like they have in recent California fires, TMWA can provide emergency water fill stations.
Though Enloe can’t imagine a wildfire scenario where the entire water system would be affected, he said TMWA is still worried about the possibility.
“Community water systems are not designed to fight wildfires,” Enloe said. “That’s a problem when you’ve got people living on the edge.”
But there’s a big asterisk on the negative effects of wildfire on water. Catastrophic wildfires are, to put it simply, potentially deadly for all in their wake. Low-intensity fires, on the other hand, can provide service to watersheds; the natural landscape exists to benefit from intermittent fires, with some native plants even requiring fire in order to sprout.
Those low intensity fires trigger new growth in both vegetation and wildlife in the surrounding forests and the greater watershed, explained Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council.
“In summary, there is a scale of wildfire that’s a threat,” Wallace said, “but there’s also a scale of wildfire that’s beneficial that we do want to have happen within the watershed.”
TNC Nevada is fine-tuning the differences. The nonprofit recently finished a Headwaters Forest Study with the USFS and TMWA. Chris Fichtel, project manager at TNC Nevada, said the study is using science to build a case for watershed protection against high-severity wildfires. After the science, TNC and its partners will reach out to stakeholders and community and business leaders to launch an awareness campaign.
In the meantime, multiple agencies are targeting different spots around the Truckee River watershed with solutions to address some of the areas more likely to suffer from a catastrophic burn. Though the work isn’t necessarily a direct reaction to TNC’s study, some projects nonetheless align with recommendations from the report: the U.S. Forest Service’s Ladybug Project east of Stampede, Tahoe National Forest’s Big Jack East Project, TNC’s work at Independence Lake, and Sagehen Creek Field Station (a collaborative project between the USFS, TNF, and University of California).
“I think that while there’s a lot … that’s concerning and discouraging, the fact that there is work going on in areas that not only the forest service would prioritize, but organizations like ourselves and water managers would prioritize, I think that’s a good thing,” TNC’s Hazelwood said. “We just need to figure out how to do more.”
In recent years, the Truckee River has been more fortunate, not dealing with any fires directly within in its boundaries. But that only means the clock is ticking.
“That’s part of what scares us so much,” Hazelwood said, “that it’s been years. You just assume that the window’s getting shorter.”
On Fire Explanation
In this edition we are launching our On Fire series, which delves into the issue of wildfire through a spectrum of lenses, including public education, breakdown of the science, graphic depictions, unique personalities, and more. This month, we focus on watershed and fire, and how they affect each other.
Check out the original centerfold painting on p. 24 of our current edition, depicting the potential effects of catastrophic wildfire in the Basin. We believe this aspect of the discussion provides visual understanding of the issues, gives optimism for lasting effects of watershed work, and tells the story in a compelling way not yet seen.