USU Professor Helps Agencies Mitigate Wildfire Effects & Protect Water Sources
Have you ever wondered what happens to rivers after wildfires?
Intense flames can change the course of a river, erode its banks, disrupt biological processes and much more.
Dr. Belize Lane is an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department who specializes in hydrology.
By measuring and analyzing changes in streamflow and sediment fluxes over time, Assistant Professor Belize Lane is helping natural resources and transportation agencies develop more efficient response strategies to wildfires.
Lane and her students have spent the last two years studying Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, which was burned by the Grizzly Creek wildfire in August 2020. It was one of the nation’s top priority fires at the time, as it put critical infrastructure at risk including a stretch of Interstate 70.
“Fires are a natural part of the Western United States, but as they become more intense, we’ll see more and different downstream impacts,” Lane said. “My lab has been trying to build our basic observational knowledge about how watersheds respond to major disturbances.”
Lane and her students have spent the last two years studying Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, which was burned by the Grizzly Creek wildfire in 2020.
Wildfires have a huge impact on watersheds. They can affect vegetation, soils, water quality and how quickly water and sediment move through ecosystems. When a fire occurs, vegetation is burned, meaning plants absorb less water, and instead, water moves faster across land due to a water-repellent ash layer on the soil.
This can rapidly increase the risk of floods, debris flows and erosion while concurrently causing major downstream consequences for water quality, aquatic ecosystems, transportation and water resources infrastructure such as dams and culverts.
“The exact impact of any given wildfire and storm sequence on any given watershed is really hard to pin down,” Lane said.
She added that because wildfires are unpredictable and their effects on an ecosystem can be hard to define, research on a topic like this can be difficult.
“That’s what keeps our job so interesting,” she said. “The questions are endless.”
The group will continue to work closely with agencies in the Western United States to mitigate the effects of future wildfires as they grow more severe and more frequent.