Wildfires Are Damaging Rivers in Ways You May Never Have Realized
I’m not sharing these facts as a “doom and gloom, it’s the end of the world as we know it”, kind of prophecy. If you’re a fan of LavaBox, you know it’s our mission to put an end to human-caused wildfires. If you have a LavaBox of your own, you share in that mission—you know the positive impact that using a portable propane campfire has on eliminating wildfires.
(If you don’t know, but you want to know, check out this blog post comparing propane campfires to wood-burning fires.)
Forests, flora, wildlife, soil, and communities are left devastated in the wake of wildfires each year. Wildfires leave barren, scarred patches of earth as a reminder that can last for years to follow. The damage caused to homes and land is visibly apparent. What isn’t always apparent is the tumultuous relationship that wildfires have with rivers, streams, and even the water supply for nearby communities.
I know, that sounds pretty counterintuitive, right? Water puts out fire. Of all the effects of wildfires, how could one of the most harmful impacts be on water? The counterintuitive nature of this issue is exactly why it’s often overlooked. But we love rivers and knowledge is power, so let’s dig in.
What Do Wildfires Have to Do With the Health of Rivers and Streams?
To understand this elemental love story (that could be described as a toxic relationship, really) you need to know a little backstory. It all starts at the watershed. Healthy rivers and streams are born in healthy watersheds.
(Wondering what a watershed is? Watersheds are areas of land that channel precipitation like rain and snowmelt into freshwater channels—rivers and streams—that eventually flow into outflows like reservoirs, for water storage, or the ocean.)
The health of a river is determined, not only by the ecosystem of the river itself, but by the streams and tributaries that flow into it and the health of the land and vegetation surrounding it. The landscape surrounding rivers provides critical wildlife habitat and helps balance the ecosystem. It also has a direct impact on the quality of the water we drink.
We here at LavaBox are local to Colorado, so let’s use Colorado as an example. Approximately 80% of the clean drinking water that Coloradoans rely on comes from forested watersheds like the South Platte River Basin and the Arkansas, Rio Grande, and Colorado River Basins.
When wildfires tear through these critical watersheds, It wreaks havoc on the riverscape, ecosystems, and the water quality of communities downstream.
The Downstream Impact of Wildfires Near Rivers
It’s a deep entanglement, wildfires and rivers. When wildfires take place near rivers and basins, the downstream impact can reach hundreds of miles, affecting everything in its path from the health of fish to infrastructure damaged by excess runoff and flooding.
To paint a broader picture, here’s an overview of what happens when wildfires take place in river basins or near riverscapes.
- Soil—particularly on slopes—is held in place by the roots of vegetation. When that vegetation perishes in a fire, soil becomes loose and unstable. This is why you often see landslides following wildfires in mountainous areas.
- Scorched soil becomes hydrophobic, repelling precipitation. Hydrophobic soil plus decimated vegetation—which typically helps absorb water—equal increased runoff draining into rivers and streams. This can lead to flooding.
- Increased runoff combined with increased erosion from loose soil causes additional sediment, debris, and ash to flow into rivers and damage aquatic habitats.
- Increased runoff also paves the way for harmful chemicals to enter fresh water. Chemical-laden sediment, flame retardant dropped on wildfires, and even mercury that can be released from burnt soil and tree trunks is introduced to the river ecosystem and can reach levels that are toxic to wildlife and detrimental to water quality.
- Burned vegetation washes into rivers and streams, producing nitrate, phosphorus, and ammonia. Ammonia is also toxic to fish in large quantities.
- Increases in nitrogen and phosphorus throw off the balance of the ecosystem causing oxygen fluctuations and depletion.
- Excess sediment, debris, and ash in the water can damage the gills of fish and decimate populations of aquatic wildlife.
Wildfires and City Water
What begins upstream eventually makes its way downstream to cities and possibly your faucet.
Denver is the perfect example of a metropolitan area facing the downstream impact of massive wildfires. In 2002 the Hayman Fire, one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, burned 138,000 acres across four counties.
The watershed affected by the Hayman Fire served 75% of Colorado residents at the time.
All the excess sediment, chemicals, and ash that we just talked about made its way down to water treatment facilities serving metropolitan areas like Denver and Fort Collins. In the case of the Hayman Fire, Denver Water spent $18.5 million to dredge sediment out of its main water storage facility, Strontia Springs Reservoir. Another $9 million was spent on the necessary precautions to remove excess minerals and organic carbons from drinking water at Denver Water’s treatment plant.
Fortunately, the city of Denver had the (nearly $30 million in) resources to treat and restore the quality of drinking water before it flowed from the taps of unwary Coloradoans. Unfortunately, in many smaller communities, these resources aren’t available. Cut-off access to fresh water and harmful tap water quality is a danger that many don’t realize can arise when wildfires burn near rivers and watersheds.
Environmental Dominos: The Grizzly Creek Wildfire in Colorado
It’s the domino effect. Wildfires aren’t isolated incidents. Wildfires are the first domino to topple over and trigger a chain of events that reaches far beyond the acreage burned.
Remember the Grizzly Creek fire of 2020?
It burned over 32,000 acres through Glenwood Canyon. It was considered a "public works fire" because it crept up on the headwaters of the Colorado River, which provides fresh water to over 40 million people.
Following the fire, torrential rain unleashed on the blackened canyon, sending the rest of the dominos on a ride. The charred, eroded land stripped of vegetation couldn’t absorb the water and let loose. Massive landslides crashed down the steep canyon walls onto the highway and into the Colorado River.
- More than 100 people became stranded on the highway in their vehicles overnight.
- Interstate 70 closed for repairs, causing a 250-mile detour for anyone needing to pass through Glenwood Canyon, including truckers and freight.
- Tourism took a hit in Glenwood Springs: Some hotels lost 25%-50% in revenue the weekend the canyon closed, local rafting outfitters had to reroute itineraries as mud, boulders, and debris settled in the Colorado River, and small businesses struggled to stay staffed when employees couldn’t commute through the canyon to work.
- Ash and debris littering the Colorado River reduced the useable water available to Glenwood Springs by 50%.
- The increased sediment load turned the river silty and muddy. It’s still causing water access issues in the small town of Silt, just west of Glenwood Springs, today. The town projects that finding a long-term solution or developing a new water treatment plant to manage the sediment load would cost around $30 million.
All damage accounted for, it could take 6-7 years from when the dominos fell in 2020 for the watershed to fully recover from the Grizzly Creek fire that triggered it all.
It’s About More Than a Portable Campfire
LavaBox was built for the river—invented by a raft guide/paddler/mad tinkerer who was really sick of seeing our beloved land and rivers decimated by flames and ash.
Yes, it’s cool that LavaBoxes can take a whitewater beating and still light up at the end of the day, or that they look rugged and refined next to your overland rig. But, the real fire driving LavaBox is to get a portable propane campfire into the hands of as many people as possible to wipe out that statistic that says 85% of wildfires are caused by us humans (many of which begin with traditional wood-burning campfires).
Propane campfires are exponentially safer and far less likely to start a brush fire. In fact, they’re so much safer that LavaBox passes stage one and stage two fire bans in most counties.
Wildfires are a part of the natural cycle of life when caused by lightning or lava. They can even cause healthy regeneration in some cases. But, as we face rising temperatures around the world and continuing drought in the western U.S., wildfires are growing far more frequent and more massive than we’ve seen in past decades.
These are typically human-caused fires and are damaging rivers, forests, and riparian ecosystems at a rate that isn’t sustainable.
What better time than now to “be the change we wish to see in the world”? If you learned something new about the relationship between wildfires and rivers, share this blog post with your favorite people who also love rivers, campfires, or clean drinking water.
One more time in the words of Smokey Bear, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”