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Western wildfires threaten water supplies, study finds

WASHINGTON — The risk of severe wildfires in the West also threatens the region’s increasingly scarce water supply, a new study finds.

The study, to be released Wednesday by the American Forest Foundation, highlights that wildfires are not just a public lands issue. Private and family lands also are at high risk, the study found, and much of that land is in critical watersheds.

“Unless we figure out how to treat all the lands ... we are all at risk,” said Tom Martin, president and CEO of the foundation, noting that efforts to maintain healthy forests as a fire-prevention measure have focused mostly on public lands.

The study defines private and family land as land owned by individuals, families, trusts, estates as well as conservation and natural resource organizations.

He said the foundation, which promotes stewardship by family forest owners, launched the study because it wanted to learn more about how the two biggest issues in the West right now — water shortages caused by extreme drought and the severe wildfire season — are related.

The foundation also funded a survey of about 1,800 family forest landowners to see what steps they have taken to reduce fire risk, and to assess barriers to further action.

In a first-of-its-kind spatial analysis, investigators overlaid data for 11 Western states showing the areas at highest risk of wildfires, the most important watersheds and information about land ownership.

The analysis found that:

• 52 million acres at high risk for fire are on private and family forest land, and 93 million acres are on public and tribal lands.

• 34 million acres across the West are at high risk for wildfires and also host important watersheds. Of that total, 13.5 million acres are located on family or other private land.

• In Oregon and California, more land at high risk of fire in key watersheds is held by private and family landowners than by the federal government.

Wildfiresare a danger to watersheds because forests act both as a filter and as a sponge, Martin said. The most severe create a “parking lot” effect where rainfall sheets off the forest floor, flooding streams, eroding stream banks and unleashing mudslides.

The report cites theFourmile CanyonFire in 2010 nearBoulder, Colo., where the burned landscape washed into waterways. Water clarity suffered, while dissolved organic carbon and nitrates increased and some heavy metal concentrations were up to four times normal levels.

One key to controlling the number and severity of wildfires is reducing the amount of undergrowth that chokes forestland and provides fuel.

Federal officials have been trying in recent years to do more of this mitigation on public land but have often been forced to “borrow” funds set aside for other purposes to cover higher-than-budgeted firefighting costs.

The survey of 1,767 landowners found that only one-quarter had taken steps to thin stands and remove underbrush.

Many were motivated to do more but the biggest obstacle was lack of money, the survey found.

Scott Hayes, who owns the 40-acre Arbor House Tree Farm along with wife, Marge, about 35 miles west ofPortland, Ore., has used his experience working for the state Forestry Department to take steps to prevent and fight fires.

The house at the center of the farm has a metal roof and concrete-based siding. An onsite water supply is available to help fight fires, and roads around the house and farm property provide fire breaks and access for firefighters.

He said resources are limited for people without his level of expertise.

Wednesday's report recommends that Congress change the funding method for fighting wildfires on public lands so funds that could go to prevention aren't siphoned off.

It also calls for doing more to help private landowners protect their forest lands and homes. The survey found 70% are motivated to do more because of a sense of responsibility as landowners.

Finally, the report calls for investments in developing technologies that would use material cleaned out of forests to create an economic incentive for landowners to do the work. One company already is using the material to create wood pellets that are being use as fuel in wood stoves, Martin said.

“It’s the totality (of private and public land) that you need to protect, not just pieces of it,” he said.


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