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Effects of fire on water: a state-of-knowledge review

Author(s): A. R. Tiedemann, Carol E. Conrad, John H. Dieterich, James W. Hornbeck, Walter F. Megahan, Leslie A. Viereck, Dale D. Wade
Year Published: 1979

The main effect burning on water quality is the potential for increased runoff of rainfall. Runoff may carry suspended soil particles, dissolved inorganic nutrients, and other materials into adjacent streams and lakes, reducing water quality and degrading fish habitat (Wade and Lundsford 1988). However, most studies in the South indicate that effects of prescribed fire on water quality are minor and of short duration when compared with effects of other forest management practices. For example, Neary and Currier (1982) reported no adverse effects to water quality after a severe wildfire in heavy fuels in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina. In the Georgia Piedmont, low-intensity fires have had little effect on hydrologic properties of soils (Brender and Cooper 1968) and streamwater quality (Douglass and Van Lear 1983, Van Lear and Waldrop 1988). Even where sedimentation and dissolved nutrients increase in streamwater in response to burns, the amounts are often negligible. For example, Knoepp and Swank (1993) found that application of the fell-and-burn technique in the Nanatahala National Forest increased streamwater concentrations of NO3 for 1 year, but that increases were small (<0.01 mg L-1 to 0.075 mg L-1). Neary and Currier (1982) reported that wildfires in the Blue Ridge Mountains resulted in a threefold increase in NO3, but resulting concentrations were still low (0.012 mg N L-1). After a site-preparation burn in north Mississippi, Ursic (1970) reported that although sediment levels on burned watersheds were several-fold greater than those of control plots, sediment output was only about 0.5 ton per acre per year. Studies from the western United States reveal that where fires have resulted in increased nitrate-N levels in streamflow, increased levels did not exceed recommended EPA standards of 10 parts per million for drinking water (Tiedemann and others 1979). Phosphorus and major cations often increase in streamflow and the soil solution after intense slash fires, but the effects are of short duration and of a magnitude not considered damaging to surface water or site productivity (Tiedemann and others 1979). Van Lear and Waldrop (1988) concluded that properly conducted site-preparation burns cause minor nutrient loss and stream sedimentation compared with those resulting from mechanical methods of site preparation.

Citation: Tiedemann AR, Conrad CE, Dieterich JH, Hornbeck JW, Megahan WF, Viereck LA, and Wade DD. 1979. Effects of fire on water: a state-of-knowledge review. National Fire Effects Workshop. Denver, CO. General Technical Report WO-GTR-10. April 1978. USDA Forest Service. 28 p.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Water
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Conference Proceedings
NRFSN number: 18676
FRAMES RCS number: 3085
TTRS (Tall Timbers Research Station) Number: 1312
Record updated: Dec 3, 2018