34– After the smoke clears; watersheds recovering from wildfire, with Dr. Patrick Belmont

September 08, 2020 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 34
34– After the smoke clears; watersheds recovering from wildfire, with Dr. Patrick Belmont
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Patrick Belmont is an Associate Professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences at USU. His research focuses on a fire’s interaction with the landscape that surrounds it, specifically how it affects water formations. Dr. Belmont explains to us the good, the bad, and the ugly that a fire can do to rivers. While fires are necessary for a landscape to grow and flourish, a great number of fires can have a ripple effect that translates all the way to the organisms that inhabit these watersheds.

Wyatt : [00:00:01] Here in the West, when the mountains look a little duller and the sun goes a little redder, you know, it's fire season. If you're lucky, you only have to deal with some bad, smoky air. If you're unlucky, you might need to find a new place to live.But after the smoke clears and the insurance claims have started, what happens to the watershed's scorched by flame? My name is Wyatt Traughber and you could be upgrading your HVAC air filter, but you're listening to this instead. Taking us through the wildfire aftermath is geomorphologist and hydrologist Dr. Patrick Belmond. He's a professor and the head of the Watershed Sciences Department here at Utah State University.In this episode, Dr. Bellmont reminds us of the historical relationships Western lands have with fire and the consequences that come from suppressing it. Essentially, Mother Nature likes to shake things up and calmness comes with a cost.Back in 2010, forty five thousand acres burned and the Twichell Canyon fire, about 20 miles northeast of Beaver, Utah, or Bellmont, talks about the area before and after the blaze and how land managers use the research he worked on to give the watershed a helping hand. If you'd like to hear how other scientists are helping keep Utah's watersheds healthy, go listen to Episode seven there. Nancy Mesner talks about the lush vegetation that grows along streams and keeping fertilizer out of our reservoirs.Smoke from intense California wildfires has repeatedly blanketed the intermountain west for the past few years. I asked Dr. Bellmont what's behind the destruction in California? Have we just gotten lucky here in the Beehive State or are we next?We also dip into the history of forest management, the benefits of controlled burns, and I get some ominous news about the risk of fire and one of my favorite recreation spots, please subscribe to the instead podcast. Leave us a positive review and tell a friend about us to get things started with Dr. Bellmont, I had some questions about our old friend Smokey the Bear.


Wyatt : [00:02:13] What I've heard about wildfires is kind of Smokey the Bear stuff about prevention. How is your research different and the same?


Patrick Belmont: [00:02:20] Yeah, Smokey was the mantra for decades. Really. Only you can prevent forest fires and forest fires are a bad thing. And certainly there are bad outcomes from forest fires, especially ones that get out of control. But fire has been a really important part of the Western landscape for millions of years, and there are a lot of natural benefits that fire brings to the landscape that actually a lot of wildlife needs. So we've been shifting focus a little bit to basically about a tool that we can use to continue to kind of reinvigorate the landscape, create habitat. The problem is trying to strike the balance between that. And we built a lot of houses and infrastructure that also can be impacted. So we're trying to strike that balance.


Wyatt : [00:03:10] Yeah, yeah. How does fire reinvigorate the landscape? I know that, like, some trees are more adapted to fire. You know, like aspens might benefit if there is more fire or not. But I'm not the scientist here.


Patrick Belmont: [00:03:24] Yeah. So this kind of gets the bigger idea of disturbance in general. And there are lots of disturbances in nature and they can be really good things. They kind of shake things up a little bit. And so with fire, fire will obviously kind of help reset some of the forest itself. And then you have forests growing at different ages and that produces different habitat for wildlife at different times. But most of what I study is the impacts of fire on erosion and sediment moving through streams and rivers and streams and rivers really need sediment to create fish habitat and things like that. And so fires bring in lots of sediment. The river kind of knows what to do with that reworks that. It kind of moves around, shifted in places, puts more here, less here, and creates a diversity of habitat. That fish can hang out in different places and find what's right for them.


Wyatt : [00:04:23] So back in Episode 20, I talked to Jack Schmidt about the Colorado River and sediment and something that came up. But because of the water, I just don't think of rivers being vulnerable to fire. How can fire disrupt a watershed?


Patrick Belmont: [00:04:38] Well, there's a number of ways that the fire can really disrupt the stream channel itself. It dumps hundreds or thousands or in some cases millions of tons of sediment into the channel. And the stream has to move that sediment downstream. And so a lot of places we go will we'll go out right after the fire and we'll get out there and we'll see. You know, there used to be a stream channel here and now it's all just filled in with sediment. And now instead of one channel where all the water is flowing, there's five separate channels where all the water is flowing and it kind of forces the river to go back through this process of kind of recreating itself and recreating some of those pools and riffles and things like that.The fish really need now so as to carve some new paths. And it's new material to do that with.


Wyatt : [00:05:31] Yeah, and what is this sediment like? Is it mostly ash? Is it mostly like dirt that was like bound up in root systems?Like what is it made out of. 


Patrick Belmont: [00:05:39] All of the above and more so ash is actually one of the bigger problems because there isn't a whole lot of good that comes out of the ash. That can be some of the most destructive for the fish because it gets clogged in their gills. And so right after a wildfire, you can see a lot of fish that are killed because of the ash move. Rough landscape very quickly. But then the fires also bring a bunch of sand and they bring a bunch of little gravels like that, that fish need to spawn, so the river will throw that and kind of big piles and fish just love it. They'll go there and they'll lose their tail and move it around a little bit, deposit eggs there. And so that's really important. Wildfires also bring in really big sediment. I'm talking boulders that are anywhere from watermelon size to small car sized and fish loved to hide behind those. Usually there's a little eddy formed right behind those really slow flowing water. And so the fish can go and just hang out there behind the boulder. And then as food kind of comes by in some of the faster moving water around the boulder, they can just jut out there little food and then come back in and hang out behind the boulder. So kind of surprisingly to me, when I started studying this, a lot of the best fish habitat in Utah is because of past wildfires, bringing in these really big boulders and finding gravels and things like that.


Wyatt : [00:07:11] How do these sediments kind of disappear over time? Because I just imagine the boulders and the gravel just being there and not needing a fire to bring new ones in.


Patrick Belmont: [00:07:21] Most of the time that we're out there in streams, the sediments not moving, it's just sitting there in the water is low enough. It's nice to go and hang out. And we very rarely see the sediment actually moving downstream. But, you know, about one or two percent of the time, they're big storm events that come through or sometimes with snowmelt and the fluids come off. And a lot of times you can't even see the bed of the river because it's so cloudy. But that's when a lot of the sediments moving. So we actually go out and we do measurements of how much sediments moving in different places. One of the many interesting things about how rivers work is if a stream can't move sediment downstream, it just sits there and other particles may come and hit it. Not little pieces off or some of it will dissolve in the water over long periods of time. And so it'll kind of break the grains down to a point where they can move it. And so there's this kind of feedback system that ensures that ultimately the river can move all the sediment that comes down into it.


Wyatt : [00:08:22] So what I'm hearing is that often like because of a big storm or maybe you just have like all the melt off in the early spring, like you get a lot more of the sediment movement then and then when a fire happens, it's like way more sediment.


Patrick Belmont: [00:08:36] Right. Right. And usually that the amount of water moving through the system goes up after fire, too. So you might see much higher flows after a fire than you do in a normal year. If you get a rainfall event that maybe drops a half an inch of water, you might not see hardly any increase in flow in the stream. But after a fire is wiped out, all the trees in the trees aren't soaking up all that water. All that water just goes into the stream and so you can actually get much bigger flood. So you normally would. And the more water is in there, the more power there is to move that sediment downstream.


Wyatt : [00:09:13] Yeah, yeah. How long do fish have to deal with Ashie dirty water after a fire? Like, are we talking like a couple of weeks or two decades?


Patrick Belmont: [00:09:23] Like, I have no idea. Yeah, it really depends on the fire and the severity of the burn for a lot of fires. We're talking about good, solid season, a couple of months of ash moving through the system and then other sediment coming along with it for some really large and severe burns. We could be talking about a couple of years where they're going to be getting that really ash laden dangerous water coming in.


Wyatt : [00:09:53] Yeah, and why is ash different than other particulates that would be in their water? What makes it harder for them to deal with?


Patrick Belmont: [00:10:00] It's really small and it's mostly made out of burned wood and things like that. So it's actually really liked rather than moving along the streambed, it floats right in the water column. It really clogs their gills. A lot of fish depend on being able to see their prey. They can't see their prey if it's really cloudy water. And then it can also cover fish eggs. It kind of suffocates fish eggs. Oxygen can't get down into the fish eggs if it's covered with the mantle of ash. So lots of different ways of ash can do nasty things.


Wyatt : [00:10:37] Yeah, yeah. It's like instead of there just being some sand at the bottom of a glass of water, it's like it's suddenly milk and you're lactose intolerant. Exactly.


Patrick Belmont: [00:10:48] Fish are ash intolerant. So I study a number of streams that have not experienced fire in a century or more. And what we tend to see a lot of the systems is the the bed of the river just looks really boring. It looks like a bowling alley. There's no pools or riffles in there. There's no place for fish to go and just hang out and hide to get out of really fast flowing water or whatever. And so the fires are bringing in the sediment that allows rivers to create the complexity that really allows fish to thrive.


Wyatt : [00:11:25] Yeah, I remember hearing something about, oh, I don't I wish I remember where I heard it. But like some researcher was studying biodiversity in Australia, the areas that were homogenous were the areas that didn't have any destruction like in the recent centuries. And it was the places that either had a fire like a massive storm or even like a tree that got hit by lightning bolt that allowed other species to like move in and there to be like more diversity in it.


Patrick Belmont: [00:11:52] So, yeah, yeah. There's this kind of big idea in science about intermediate disturbance. And if you don't have any disturbance, things get pretty boring. And it's not good for life in general. If you have disturbances all the time, life can't really get used to things and you can't really get settled. But if you have just kind of an intermediate amount of disturbance, it tends to be really good, keeps things fresh, shakes things up, but at the same time allows organisms to figure out how to get things done and live their lives in.


Wyatt : [00:12:28] That kind of makes me think of what's happening now with the pandemic, because when it first started and we thought it would just be like a few weeks, maybe a month, it was just kind of like, oh, this sucks, but it'll be kind of a nice shake up to life and we'll come out stronger. And now it's just like, OK, too much disturbance was more than we need it. Yeah. OK, so yeah. If you want to tell me about the Twitchell Canyon fire because I know you've researched it.


Patrick Belmont: [00:12:51] Yeah. Twitchell Canyon Fire was at the time one of the biggest fires in Utah state history. This is in 2010. It's forty five thousand acres that have burned and a lot of it burned at very high severity. And it was in pretty steep mountains. It was down in the Tushar Mountains down near Beaver, Utah, right about where I fifteen and I 70 come together. So really steep topography and it burned very quickly. It was actually a fire that started with lightning, but they were kind of allowing it to burn because they were using that as a management practice. And one day kind of unexpectedly winds kicked up. It got out of hand and burned an enormous area at very high severity. And so they are very concerned about it. State and federal agencies are very concerned about it because they have been managing some really critical fish populations in that watershed and wanted to do everything they could to contain and protect those potentially endangered fish.


Wyatt : [00:13:59] Yeah, yeah. Um, so tell me a little bit like if I was like in this area in twenty eight, what kind of describe the land. To me then and then kind of describe how it changed.


Patrick Belmont: [00:14:14] Well, the two regions that had been suppressed for fire for decades, so we've have seen a lot of really dense forest on very steep hill slopes in a very difficult place to move around, you know, hiking through the mountains, difficult place to try to make a living. When we got there in twenty thirteen, it was still largely a moonscape. I mean, there were no trees whatsoever. A lot of them had not even started to regrow in a lot of these areas that were really severely burned. In some other areas, they were starting to come back. So you see really small conifers coming back. And now we're, you know, 10 years out from the fire and we're really seeing a lot of regrowth down there at this point and a lot of variability in extreme.


Wyatt : [00:15:03] What kind of is there grasses that come back first, or is it just like dead in 20, like in the couple of years after?


Patrick Belmont: [00:15:12] It depends a little bit on the burn severity, so if you have a really high severity burn, even grasses sometimes won't come back and next year it can take three or four years before you start to get some of the carbon and the nutrients back into the soil allows for even grasses to come back. But in the kind of moderate and lower severity places, you'd see the grasses coming back that next year by the time you see ASCAN starting to come back that next year as well. So the recovery kind of depends on the burn severity. And so in that way, it's kind of good to have fires that burn Pache way where you get little areas that are high severity burn other areas that are moderate or low severity burn because they'll create some of that patchiness and heterogeneity that just allows different critters to find their place. So we started studying it in twenty thirteen a couple of years after the fire to try to figure out one, what happened, how could we predict these types of events and where the biggest problems were likely to come up? And then what more could we do about it? There were a couple surprising things that came out of that. One of the things that we did was to look at old deposits, deposits that were there long before the Tridgell fire because we want to see what evidence there was for previous fires in that landscape, documented about 15 or 20 previous fires that had occurred there over the last eight thousand years.


Patrick Belmont: [00:16:45] And that was just from a small sampling of a couple of different deposits that we went through there, probably a lot more that happened in the landscape. Couple of interesting things that came out of that. We were able to do a surprisingly good job of predicting where the most catastrophic erosion. We're using some models that were predicted that were developed by the US Geological Survey. And we've got to the point where we can actually predict those quite well. We're also able to predict which parts of the stream changed a lot in which didn't after the kind of catastrophic erosional events and debris flows, certain parts of the stream network are going to completely change and other parts won't change at all. And that depends on a number of different factors. But the the main point is that we're actually able to do the math at this point to figure out which ones are more likely to experience change and which ones won't.


Wyatt : [00:17:43] Yeah, yeah. And so because you guys can do this math to see where the biggest impacts on the river will be, what kind of management or efforts result from that to help restore things or push nature, give nature a little bit of a hand.


Patrick Belmont: [00:17:58] Yeah, also, one of the things that we were doing with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was trying to figure out which places are going to be most impacted by the sediment coming in. And which of those places are likely to maybe benefit from some of the sediment coming in, which places are likely to be degraded but come back naturally, pretty quickly, and which places are they're just going to be stuck in a bad state for a long time, years, maybe decades because of all the sediment. And that helps them figure out we can leave some of these other places alone. They're going to bounce back quickly if we need to do some stream restoration techniques. Let's focus on these areas that we know are not going to come back quickly on their own. So it really helps them kind of target prioritize where to do different practices.


Wyatt : [00:18:53] And how did this affect, like the local communities, water supply or were there effects like that? They know that there have been some places.


Patrick Belmont: [00:19:03] In Twichell Canyon, there isn't a reservoir to close downstream from there, so that wasn't as big of an issue in that stream. But some of the other big fires recently, the Bryan Head Fire had just flat out took out one of the reservoirs. And then Penguin's Lake is also used as reservoir as a huge fishing recreation area. And both of those were heavily impacted.


Wyatt : [00:19:28] And what kind of I know you're not an engineer, but what kind of things need to be done to make the water usable because you don't have trees filtering it for you anymore?


Patrick Belmont: [00:19:43] Well, in places where we have a really big, high severity burns.It gets really expensive to do water treatment.I mean, we're talking.Several million to tens of millions of dollars, especially for small communities like Anguish, they don't have that kind of money and it's hard to even get that amount of money from the state for such a small population. So really, the best thing that we can do is be a bit more proactive in how we're managing the forests and trying to make sure that these things don't get out of hand and get to the point where that's our only option. Nature does so many favors for free. If we just take care of it, it pays us back.


Wyatt : [00:20:31] Yeah, yeah. So thanks for answering that. I know that's not quite your field, but I appreciate having the context on it. So I know the amount of intervention we have with stopping forest fires has fluctuated a lot over time. Kind of tell me what the approach is currently and the different options we have for the future.


Wyatt : [00:20:52] The best people to talk about that question with would be Lucy Yocum or Jim Lutz. I mean, they handle a lot more on that side of things. From my perspective, we've gone from a time when suppression was everything. We were just trying to suppress fires. As soon as they started put them out, we've shifted to a little bit more of trying to manage the fires in a way that it's able to maybe do some good to regenerate some forests, maybe to bring some sediment into some streams that need it, and to try to recreate some of that patchiness in the landscape. And we've seen a couple of those get out of hand, and so there's always risk involved, but there's potentially bigger risks about not taking that approach because we have so many fuels out there right now in our forests and their drier than they have ever been in the last several centuries. And so excess fuels super dry. A lot of these fires are just uncontrollable from the get go. And maybe nowhere is that more clear than what we're seeing in California right now. Yeah, California's got a lot of fuels, very dry fuels, and they also have these really strong winds. You know, you get a lightning strike, starts a fire, and you've got a 70 mile an hour wind. There's no amount of 747 with water dumping on it or helicopters flying in fire retardant. There's no amount of that you can do to really stop those types.


Wyatt : [00:22:28] Yeah, yeah, I, I what's different and what's similar between us in California, because I know there's like lots of similar landscapes, but I also know that we aren't California and it's just nice to hear the differences between us and other places. I'm sorry, this is a little bit of a tangent, but when the earthquake happened back in March and talking to Dr Alexis AWALT about it, people are freaking out and they're comparing us to like the earthquake that happened, the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska, which is an insane earthquake. But the faults don't have evidence of anything that big ever happening in this area. So it's nice to just understand what's the same and what's different about where we live.


Patrick Belmont: [00:23:12] We are definitely in a different situation from California, our. Our flood and drought cycles are not anywhere near as extreme as they have in California. And so both of those things really hammered California in terms of wildfire because this year their snowpack was something on the order of twenty five percent of normal. That means they had very little water out there in the landscape. The forests kind of dried up very early and have had this really long fire season. And so the low snowpack and the drought situation out there over the last decade has caused a lot of fires, they're also getting these atmospheric rivers, these just amounts of water that are coming through the atmosphere and they just get dumped on the Sierras. And so they're seeing the other side of this where they're getting almost unprecedented amounts of rainfall. And when that happens, after a fire, you get just a tremendous amount of water. On top of that, they have lots of faults all across the state and really crazy earthquake and fault systems that are already really predisposed to landslides and debris flows and things like that. So if you just burned the landscape there just that much more susceptible, how do controlled burns help? Controlled burns can really help the situation because we can keep the fire at a relatively low intensity of low severity. And so you don't generate nearly as much ash from that. You don't generate as much smoke from that.And they're not stand replacing. A lot of times you'll just be burning off brush in the layer underneath and you're not burning up the entire canopy of trees. And so they they're kind of these little resets for that in some cases might bring in some new sediment to the stream. But they're they're far less severe than these really high severity burns ones that you see on the news that have 30 and 40 foot flames that are just catastrophic.


Wyatt : [00:25:26] If there's like one misconception about wildfires that people have the bugs you. What would you what would it be and why?


Patrick Belmont: [00:25:34] Well, I mean, Smokey the Bear was great at his job. He really put it in a lot of people's heads. That fire is that we need to put them out as soon as we can. And certainly for human caused fires, we do want to put them out as soon as we can. There's always a peak of fires right around 4th of July and in Utah, right around Pioneer Day again. And we don't need to be adding to nature's ability to burn for us. But I think we do need to change our perspective a little bit on fire, always being that there are some benefits and maybe even more important than that, fire is inevitable. The Western landscape is just naturally predisposed. It has to burn. And so thinking about how we can manage the forests and a fire to make it burn in beneficial ways or at least least destructive ways, I think is really important. One other big impact of fires in Utah is on our reservoirs. So we have one hundred and thirty three large reservoirs across the state of Utah. And that's where we get most of our drinking water. That's where we get most of our irrigation water. These are really important reservoirs and they're expensive to maintain. One of the most expensive things about them is when they fill up with sediment. And so we're currently doing a study that is looking at all one hundred and thirty three reservoirs throughout the state and we're figuring out which ones are most vulnerable to wildfire. If a wildfire were to start in that watershed, how much sediment would be generated and how much of that would get all the way down to the reservoir? And we're going to be working with state and federal agencies to figure out what to do about that, then, you know, where are the biggest, most vulnerable reservoirs and then what types of fuel management or other management practices might we be able to use to reduce the risk to all of our reservoirs?


Wyatt : [00:27:43] Just like a selfish question, like how high is like Logan's water system on that list?


Patrick Belmont: [00:27:51] We don't know yet. But it's you know, it's probably fairly high, actually, because we have three very small reservoirs here on the Logan River and we have a pretty large forest that has hardly experienced any fire at all. And this year we had a fire that is very close to getting into some of the lodgepole pine up there. And if that fire had gotten up into that forest just right off Logan Canyon, it would have burned very hot and very quickly. And we could have seen huge amounts of erosion coming directly into the Logan River and really overwhelming those three small reservoirs that we have there. So. I think that'll come out high on the priority list of places where we're going to want to really make some adjustments for managing that forest and also how we're managing some of the reservoirs here.


Wyatt : [00:28:45] Wow, I'm surprised by that. What was that? Just like a couple like weeks ago. And it was somebody started up a campfire outside of like a designated ring area.


Patrick Belmont: [00:28:59] So you're right. Yeah. Yeah. And we've been seeing that a lot this year. It's one of the interesting interactions between wildfire and covid is covid has gotten a lot of people out into the mountains, you know, people who wouldn't normally have gone out camping like, well, this is a good social distancing thing I can do. And so they're going out and camping and they're not necessarily that knowledgeable about how to do it safely. So we have seen a pretty substantial uptick in fires this year that I think are somewhat related to that.


Wyatt : [00:29:29] I guess that's why it's important to respect fire restrictions when they're in place. And remember what Smokey the Bear said, if it's too hot to touch, it's too hot to leave. Because remember what Dr. Belmont said, failure is inevitable.The Western landscape is just naturally predisposed. It has to burn.Thanks for listening. And if you want to take a second to go follow at instead podcast on Instagram, I'd appreciate it. Instead is produced and edited by Nick Vázquez and me Wyatt Traughber. It's part of our work in the Office of Research at Utah State University.


Is Smokey the Bear all he's cracked up to be?
Fire in the West
Shaking up the Landscapes
What's in this sediment?
Ash in your gills
Disturbance & Biodiversity
Twitchell Canyon Fire
Past & Future fire management
Utah vs California
1 Misconception
Logan Canyon & Covid