The Burned Area Learning Network addresses post-fire impacts to ecosystems and communities.
Wildfires in the West are increasing in size and severity, and are impacting more communities. While we recognize fire as an inevitable and essential process in our wildlands, in many cases the size and severity of fires we see today deviate from what is considered "natural" and beneficial. And the impacts to society and ecosystems do not end when burning stops. Post-fire processes—flooding, erosion, invasive species incursion and loss of forest watershed function—can last for decades and have profound impacts on communities far outside the original fire boundary and to species reliant on intact forests. Climate change not only exacerbates the severity of fire, but in some areas it also creates uncertainty around post-fire vegetative recovery. In the Southwest, there are concerns that severely burned landscapes in pine and mixed conifer forests will not transition back to forest conditions because of further drying and warming of conditions.
Decades of support for fire science and management has led to a generally good understanding of how fire behaves, and coordinated fire management by the agencies responsible. Funding—and understanding—of good post-fire practices, coordinated response and long-term outcomes after severe fire is much weaker. The full cost of wildfire—which includes direct fire-related casualties, natural resource and property losses, as well as the longer-term post-fire losses due to flooding, erosion impacts to air and water quality, healthcare costs, damage to businesses and water and transportation infrastructure—is anywhere from two to thirty times greater than the cost of suppression alone. Unfortunately, money for post-fire mitigation is limited in amount, scope and availability. For example, while the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program provides short-term funding and expertise immediately following a fire on federal landscapes, there is no program designed to address long term management of burned areas.