Fire and Best Management Practices

Fire has played a role in woodlands for millions of years and it can be an important force in healthy forest management. But there are water quality implications for fire. A very hot fire can remove vegetation and damage soils, which may lead to erosion and sedimentation of waterways. Fire preparedness and firefighting techniques–like blading fire breaks and spraying fire retardants–can lead to erosion and impair water quality. 

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Following Best Management Practices will help you protect your woodland waters from some of the impacts unique to fire. Some of these BMPs are particular to prescribed fire, while others are more general guidance for fire preparedness and post-fire restoration.

Prescribed fire can be an important and cost-effective tool to help restore native ecology, eliminate invasive weeds, spur seed growth for some tree species, enhance wildlife habitat and prevent damaging wildfires by reducing fuel buildup periodically. But if not done thoughtfully, fire can impact water quality. In general, the more intense a fire is, the greater potential impact it has on water quality. A cool, slow-burning prescribed fire can have very little negative water impacts compared to an intense wildfire that burns everything down to the topsoil.

When using fire as a tool, always work with a trained professional or trusted advisor, and follow local fire regulations. And when dealing with the effects of fire, use Best Management Practices.

For prescribed fire, BMPs include:

  • A plan to control erosion that may run off into streams, wetlands or lakes after a fire. Maintain soil stabilization practices until the ground has recovered and vegetation has returned.
  • Careful selection of fire locations and consideration of how weather, fuels and other factors may intersect with water protections.
  • Avoiding burns that remove excessive amounts of the forest floor and duff. A hard scorch can expose bare soil that may then run off into waterways.
  • Avoiding storage or burning of slash in wetlands, Riparian Management Zones and other sensitive areas.

For all fire, BMPs include:

  • Employing natural fire breaks rather than bladed or plowed fire breaks, especially in Riparian Management Zones and near waterways and wetlands. Plowing and blading disturbs soil structure and can lead to erosion and sedimentation of waters.
  • Avoiding chemical fire retardants, especially near water surfaces. These toxins can pollute water and kill fish and other aquatic creatures. In wildfire, if they are unavoidable, try to avoid spraying near streams, lakes, wetlands and Riparian Management Zones.
  • Using soil stabilization techniques where erosion is likely to occur and maintaining them until the land and vegetation recover.
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