Ecological - Second Order
Wildfires are increasing in size and severity in forested landscapes across the Western United States. Not only do fires alter land surfaces, but they also affect the surface water quality in downstream systems. Previous studies of individual fires have observed an increase in various forms of nutrients, ions, sediments and metals in stream water for different post-fire time periods. In this research, data were compiled for over 24 000 fires across the western United States to evaluate post-fire water-quality response. The database included millions of water-quality data points downstream of these fires, and was synthesised along with geophysical data from each burned watershed. Data from 159 fires in 153 burned watersheds were used to identify common water-quality response during the first 5 years after a fire. Within this large dataset, a subset of seven fires was examined further to identify trends in water-quality response. Change-point analysis was used to identify moments in the post-fire water-quality data where significant shifts in analyte concentrations occurred. Evaluating individual fires revealed strong initial increases or decreases in concentrations, depending on the analyte, that are masked when averaged over 5 years. Evidence from this analysis shows significant increases in nutrient flux (different forms of nitrogen and phosphorus), major-ion flux and metal concentrations are the most common changes in stream water quality within the first 5 years after fire. Dissolved constituents of ions and metals tended to decrease in concentration 5 years after fire whereas particulate matter concentration continued to increase. Assembling this unique and extensive dataset provided the opportunity to determine the most common post-fire water-quality changes in the large and diverse Western USA. Results from this study could inform studies in other parts of the world, will help parameterise and validate post-fire water-quality models, and assist communities affected by wildfire to anticipate changes to their water quality.