This year has been one of the most destructive fire seasons on record. Smoke from fires currently burning in the foothills and mountains of Colorado is visible as far away as Nebraska and Kansas. The Whitewater Baldy Fire in New Mexico, which has been contained, set a new state record with 298,000 acres burned.
Over 30,000 people have been evacuated from around Colorado Springs and more than 300 homes have burned due to the 16,000-acre Waldo Canyon Fire. Elsewhere in Colorado, more than 250 homes have burned in the 87,500-acre High Park Fire near Fort Collins, and another wildfire is burning in the foothills west of Boulder. Other people are being evacuated from areas in Utah and Montana. Communities across the West are scrambling to ensure people and property are protected, as Idaho and Wyoming also anticipate wildfires.
Wildland fires pose a threat to life and property in many parts of the United States. Over $1 billion was spent last year in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas alone, a cost that is spread between federal agencies, states, rural fire departments, and local municipalities.
The secondary effects of wildfires – erosion, debris flows, changes in water quality, and the introduction of invasive species – can also be dangerous and costly.
Start with Science
The USGS plays an integral role in preparing for and responding to wildfires by providing tools and information before, during, and after the disasters to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, while providing real-time firefighting support during the events.
Fire managers and support staff require high-quality, timely GIS maps to guide firefighting. The USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center provide up-to-the minute map information and satellite imagery about the current wildfire extent and behavior throughout the nation.
“Useful and timely geospatial data provided by the USGS are critical in helping the Department of the Interior make decisions that support wildland fire management across the nation,” said Kirk Rowdabaugh, Director of the Department’s Office of Wildland Fire Coordination. “Having access to this scientifically valid information is key to helping us successfully respond to fires that threaten the public’s well-being and practice adaptive management during fires to protect resources and enhance landscape resilience.”
As the fires are contained, USGS scientists are assessing the aftermath of wildfires in order to build more resilient communities and ecosystems. Meanwhile, USGS scientists are preparing for flooding as monsoon season begins later in the summer.
Because fires remove vegetation and the burned soil is less able to absorb rainwater, communities downstream from burned watersheds are at risk of flash flooding and debris flows. To help in National Weather Service flood warnings, USGS scientists in Arizona and New Mexico will install an early warning network of gages, including four stand-alone rain gages and two streamflow gages. The data provided by the new gages will alert downstream communities and emergency management officials and can provide up to an hour of advance warning. The USGS Colorado Water Science Center is working with local agencies to produce a debris flow hazards assessment using a USGS-developed methodology to identify those areas with the highest susceptibility for debris flows when heavy rains hit the fire-stripped slopes.
After the wildfires and other hazards subside, USGS scientists will work with partners to characterize the severity of individual fires and their effects on water quality and supply, hillslope stability, invasive species potential, and impact to other ecosystem services such as wildlife habitat and treasured landscapes.
Wildfires of the Future
The effects of climate change, such as hotter and dryer conditions, are expected to significantly increase wildfire frequency and severity in many parts of the country and world. Wildfires also produce greenhouse gasses that can contribute to and accelerate climate change. USGS scientists are actively involved in studying the connections between climate change and wildfires to help improve our understanding of the future and enhance community preparedness.