‘Hard on water:’ Smoke not the only long-range effect of wildfires

‘Hard on water:’ Smoke not the only long-range effect of wildfires

The project began more than 10 years ago after southern Alberta’s 2003 Lost Creek fire

Smoke isn’t the only way wildfires affect people and places far from the flames.

Researchers are studying how blackened forests affect ecosystems and water quality far downstream just as hundreds of blazes in British Columbia are darkening skies as far east as Manitoba.

“Fires are particularly hard on water,” said Monica Emelko, a water treatment engineer at the University of Waterloo and a member of the Southern Rockies Watershed Project.

“If the intensity is there and enough of the watershed is burned, you can have a very significant impact on the water supply and that impact can be long-lasting.”

The project began more than 10 years ago after southern Alberta’s 2003 Lost Creek fire. Its work has proven so valuable that the team recently received about $9 million in grants to keep studying how changes in forested areas affect water.

READ MORE: Conditions improve for battling northwest BC wildfires, minister says

Fires and forests have always gone together. But that relationship began to change around the turn of the century.

“Fire managers started to see wildfire behaviour that was at the extreme end or beyond anything that had been previously observed,” said Uldis Silins, a University of Alberta hydrologist and project member.

The intensity and speed of fires ramped up. Blazes that used to calm overnight kept raging. At Lost Creek, firefighters reported walls of flame 150 metres high rolling through trees at 2 a.m.

A 2016 published paper found the effects of that fire were visible in rivers and streams more than a decade later.

Runoff began earlier and was faster, increasing erosion and creating drier forests. Nutrients such as phosphorus were up to 19 times greater — good for aquatic bugs but also for algae.

“Some of these streams became choked with algae,” Silins said. “We’ve seen lasting and pretty profound impacts on water quality and aquatic ecology.”

The project has seen similar effects from other fires it’s studied. Some are detectable hundreds of kilometres downstream from the flames and have serious consequences for urban water treatment.

“You get much bigger swings in water quality,” Emelko said. “One of the biggest and most common challenges to water treatment is not water contamination, but large swings in water quality.”

Nutrients that choke streams can also create microbe growth in water pipes and distribution networks. They can react with chemicals used to purify water to form compounds that are themselves harmful.

Emelko said nutrients from fires can show up far downstream and last for years.

“They can sit there in riverbeds and reservoirs and can create a legacy of effects.”

The challenges aren’t going away.

Climate scientists have for years predicted hotter and larger wildfires. Climate change doesn’t in itself spark fires, but it loads the dice in favour of them by creating longer fire seasons and drier forests, as well as increasing the number of dead, combustible trees through climate-related insect outbreaks.

Natural Resources Canada says those effects could double the amount of boreal forest burned by the end of this century compared with recent records.

Meanwhile, those forests are the source of much of our water. Two-thirds of the water used in Alberta comes from forested landscapes.

“As we see these fires more frequently with more severity, the types of impacts to our water are likely to be seen more broadly,” said Silins.

Emelko said it’s time Canadians stopped thinking solely in terms of fire suppression and water treatment plants. As water demand increases, water security has to start where the water comes from, she said.

“Forests have not been managed primarily for water. They’ve been managed for fibre production and protection of life and property,” she said. “Disturbances like wildfires are increasingly likely and we need to adapt.

“When we started working on wildfire and water, we were told it’s a one-off issue and it’s not going to be relevant to the broader scientific community.

“Things have changed a lot.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Terry Keogh, an RDN Transit driver, used his paramedic skills the morning of Jan. 22 after coming across an unconscious woman along his route in downtown Nanaimo. (RDN Transit photo)
RDN Transit driver stops his bus and helps get overdosing woman breathing again

Former EMT from Ireland performed CPR on a woman in downtown Nanaimo on Friday

Peter Crema and Harmony Gray (from left), past participants of the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s Code Switching teen art group, at work in ArtLab in 2019. The NAG will be expanding the space thanks to a $75,000 arts infrastructure program grant. (Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo Art Gallery, Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre receive new arts infrastructure funding

Province announces recipients of funding through B.C. Arts Council program

Angela Waldick is the new team photographer for the Nanaimo NightOwls. (Nanaimo NightOwls photo)
Half-blind photographer will help Nanaimo’s new baseball team look picture-perfect

NightOwls announce partnership with Angela Waldick of Nightengales Photography

Emergency crews were called to a crash involving a hatchback and a taxi minivan at the intersection of Fitzwilliam, Pine and Third streets on Friday afternoon. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Driver hurt as taxi and hatchback crash in Nanaimo

Collision happened Friday at intersection of Fitzwilliam, Pine and Third streets

A person experiencing homelessness in downtown Nanaimo last week. (News Bulletin photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Change approach to combatting homelessness

Letter writers express frustration with status quo

Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 is International Lego Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 24 to 30

Lego Day, Talk Like a Grizzled Prospector Day and Puzzle Day are all coming up this week

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

Black Press file photo
Investigation at remote burned-out Vancouver Island cabin reveals human remains

Identity of victim not released, believed to be the owner of an SUV vehicle found parked nearby

Nanaimo City Hall. (News Bulletin file photo)
City of Nanaimo councillors like new sustainable buying policy

Finance and audit committee recommends council approve new procurement policy

Danielle Groenendijk raised more than twice her goal for Parkinson Canada. (Photo submitted)
VIU volleyball athlete doubles fundraising goal for Parkinson’s

Daily runs over 30 days by Groenendijk add up to 254 kilometres

An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. in 2018. The First Nations Leadership Council says an attempt by industry to overturn the phasing out of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands in contrary to their inherent Title and Rights. (THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward photo)
First Nations Leadership Council denounces attempt to overturn salmon farm ban

B.C.’s producers filed for a judicial review of the Discovery Islands decision Jan. 18

More than 100 B.C. fishermen, fleet leaders, First Nations leaders and other salmon stakeholders are holding a virtual conference Jan. 21-22 to discuss a broad-range of issues threatening the commercial salmon fishery. (Black Press file photo)
B.C. commercial salmon fishermen discuss cures for an industry on the brink

Two-day virtual conference will produce key reccomendations for DFO

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Most Read