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Project ID: 14-1-06-18

Year: 2014

Date Started: 10/01/2014

Ending Date:  09/30/2018

Title: Wildfire and Fuel Treatment Strategy Effects on Water Quantity across the Conterminous United States

Project Proposal Abstract: Forest watersheds provide over half of our national water supplies. However, wildfires pose increasing threats to stream water quantity, water quality, and drinking water supplies to millions of peoples in municipalities. Wildfires may negatively affect watershed functions by altering forest ecosystem structure, soil infiltration capacity, flow pathways, evapotranspiration rates, and soil water storage. Many complex factors are involved in causing the potential hydrologic impacts from wildfires, including fire intensity, severity, climatic characteristics, and watershed conditions, all making it extremely challenging to respond to wildfires. Exiting studies on the effects of prescribed fires on soil and water resources focus mostly on plot or small watershed scale and knowledge on wildfire-water relationships is lacking the large basin scale. The recent Wildfire Cohesive Strategies recommends fuel treatments as a forest management tool to effectively reduce the occurrences and likely impacts of catastrophic fires in populated areas. However, little is known about how these treatments affect watershed peakflows and water yield in different physiographic regions in the U.S. There is an immediate need to identify high priority watersheds that potentially have high hydrologic impacts, and also to evaluate the effectiveness of prescribed fuel treatments at a broad scale, so that limited resources can be optimized by region or landscape locations. One approach to achieve our objectives of answering 'what if' questions is using advanced watershed hydrologic modeling tools with aid of historic fire and streamflow records. This work squarely addresses questions for proposals under JFSP BLM/JFSP No. FA-FON-14-0001 Task 6 Effects of Wildfire on Water. In this study, we will apply two types of hydrologic analytic techniques, empirical and process-based models, to quantify water quantity responses to wildfire events and fuel management options across 88, 000 CONUS watersheds (HUC-12). Specifically, we hypothesize that water yield or peakflow response to wildfires increases with fire severity and streamflow is most sensitive to vegetation disturbances in regions where precipitation is approximate to potential evapotranspiration. We will test our hypotheses by analyzing data for 20 watersheds that include historic streamflow and large wildfire records in southern and western U.S. Streamflow flow changes will be statistically detected using the modified Double Mass Curve and Flow Duration Curve methods. The WaSSI water balance model that is sensitive to climate and land cover changes, will be applied to 88,000 HUC-12 watersheds in the CONUS to examine effects of vegetation structure (leaf area index) and soil properties on monthly streamflow under eight hypothetical scenarios. The WaSSI modeling results provide critical information on hydrologic sensitivity to wildfire and fuel treatments at the watershed across a large physiographic gradient in CONUS. The physically-based, spatially explicit distributed watershed hydrologic model, MIKE SHE, will be used to primarily examine how peakflow and flooding regimes may be altered by wildfires in selected large water supply basins for municipalities. This study will extend the forest hydrology and fire ecology research capacity within the Forest Service to understand fire-water relations at a much larger scale than the traditional 'Paired Watershed' method uses. We will engage land managers early and frequently in the course of this project in developing realistic modeling scenarios and applying the results for local watershed management. Science delivery will be conducted with a combination training workshop on model use, reports, conference presentations, publication in referred journals, and non- refereed publications.

Principal Investigator: Ge Sun

Agency/Organization: Forest Service

Branch or Dept: SRS-Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Ctr

Other Project Collaborators




Branch or Dept

Agreements Contact

Joyce M. Gorgas

Forest Service

SRS-Southern Research Station

Budget Contact

Shelly M. Gates

Forest Service

SRS-Southern Research Station

Co-Principal Investigator

Peter V. Caldwell

Forest Service

SRS-Coweeta Hydrologic Lab

Co-Principal Investigator

Steven G. McNulty

Forest Service

SRS-Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Ctr

Co-Principal Investigator

Steven P. Norman

Forest Service

SRS-Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Ctr


Yongqiang Liu

Forest Service

SRS-Ctr for Forest Disturbance Science

Project Locations

Fire Science Exchange Network



Great Basin

Great Plains

Lake States

Oak Woodlands

Northern Rockies




Southern Rockies









Project Deliverables

There is no final report available for this project.
  ID Type Title
view or print   3791 Journal Article Hydrological Processes
view or print   3748 Journal Article Ecohydrology

Supporting Documents

There are no supporting documents available for this project.

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