WWDC looks at fire impactsWritten by Saige Albert
Casper – With several catastrophic fires over the last 10 years, Harry LaBonde, director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, remarked that Governor Matt Mead developed a Forest Health Task Force, and the group looked at solutions for fires.
“I was fortunate enough to be appointed to that committee,” LaBonde said. “There was one water component in regards to water supply and water quality.”
Fires can dramatically impact water sources for municipalities. LaBonde cited the Hayman Fire in the South Platte Drainage, which dramatically impacted the city of Denver, Colo.’s water supply.
“In 2002, the fire was started under very dry, windy conditions, and it burned over much of the range,” he continued. “The fire was extremely hot. It created damage to the resource, baked the ground, made it more subject to erosion and increased difficulty of reclamation.”
As a result, the city and county of Denver spent over $16.5 million pumping sediment from their reservoirs to improve infrastructure. An additional $11 million was spent on water treatment and reclamation to reclaim the landscape.
“It brought forward, in my mind, the question, what can be done to prevent catastrophic fires?” LaBonde said.
LaBonde presented during the 2014 Wyoming Water Association Conference on Oct. 29 and described potential efforts to improve forest health and, as a result, water quality.
“I proposed to the Forest Health Task Force to develop cross-jurisdictional watershed protection plans for municipal water supply drainages that focuses on proactive management to preserve and enhance water quality and avoid catastrophic effects on large scale aquifers,” he said.
Developing a plan
LaBonde cited that three reservoirs are particularly vulnerable to the potential of catastrophic fires – including Rob Roy supplying Cheyenne, Twin Lake supporting Sheridan and Tie Hack for Buffalo.
“What can we do that puts us in a position to be able to fight large, catastrophic fires and to hopefully stop the fires?” he asked.
LaBonde further suggested taking action by working with Forest Service employees to conduct a watershed study. He also noted that geologists, fire ecologists, hydrologists and timber experts should be brought together to look a where treatments could be applied strategically.
“If we have to fight a catastrophic crown-type fire, we need to look at where could we strategically put treatments on the ground to allow us to fight those fires,” he said, suggesting that strategic thinning could be the answer.
Looking back at the Hayman Fire, LaBonde noted that the fire was unable to be fought when it was burning the crowns of trees. However, as soon as the fire hit an area that had been thinned, it moved back to the ground and was extinguished.
“We need to identify what treatments might be appropriate in what areas,” he said.
Efforts to strategically manage forests and apply treatments must be also included in forest planning.
“We put this in the hands of the Forest Service for planning for future forest treatments,” LaBonde commented, also notes that future work could be done in the form of water development studies.
He also mentioned that he does see some effort, particularly in the Bighorn National Forest regarding the wildlands and urban interface.
“Stay tuned,” LaBonde said of the effort. “It is my hope that we see studies regarding water development in this area, and I think it is appropriate that we fund those studies if we go forward, to give us the proactive approach to deal with catastrophic fires.”