Dennis W. Hallema


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Scientists' warning on extreme wildfire risks to water supply
François Robinne, Dennis W. Hallema, Kevin D. Bladon, Mike Flannigan, Gabrielle Boisramé, Christian Bréthaut, Stefan H. Doerr, Giuliano Di Baldassarre, Louise Gallagher, Amanda K. Hohner, Stuart J. Khan, A. M. Kinoshita, Rua S. Mordecai, João Pedro Nunes, Petter Nyman, Cristina Santín, Gary Sheridan, Cathelijne R. Stoof, Matthew P. Thompson, J. M. Waddington, Yu Wei
Hydrological Processes, Volume 35, Issue 5

2020 is the year of wildfire records. California experienced its three largest fires early in its fire season. The Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, burned over 20% of its surface. More than 18 million hectares of forest and bushland burned during the 2019–2020 fire season in Australia, killing 33 people, destroying nearly 2500 homes, and endangering many endemic species. The direct cost of damages is being counted in dozens of billion dollars, but the indirect costs on water-related ecosystem services and benefits could be equally expensive, with impacts lasting for decades. In Australia, the extreme precipitation (“200 mm day −1 in several location”) that interrupted the catastrophic wildfire season triggered a series of watershed effects from headwaters to areas downstream. The increased runoff and erosion from burned areas disrupted water supplies in several locations. These post-fire watershed hazards via source water contamination, flash floods, and mudslides can represent substantial, systemic long-term risks to drinking water production, aquatic life, and socio-economic activity. Scenarios similar to the recent event in Australia are now predicted to unfold in the Western USA. This is a new reality that societies will have to live with as uncharted fire activity, water crises, and widespread human footprint collide all-around of the world. Therefore, we advocate for a more proactive approach to wildfire-watershed risk governance in an effort to advance and protect water security. We also argue that there is no easy solution to reducing this risk and that investments in both green (i.e., natural) and grey (i.e., built) infrastructure will be necessary. Further, we propose strategies to combine modern data analytics with existing tools for use by water and land managers worldwide to leverage several decades worth of data and knowledge on post-fire hydrology.


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Wildfire impacts on hydrologic ecosystem services in North American high-latitude forests: A scoping review
François Robinne, Dennis W. Hallema, Kevin D. Bladon, J. M. Buttle
Journal of Hydrology, Volume 581

Abstract High-latitude forests of North America are characterized by their natural dependence on large and severe wildfires. However, these wildfires also pose a range of social, economic, and environmental risks, with growing concern regarding persistent effects on stream flow volume, seasonal timing of flow, water quality, aquatic ecosystem health, and downstream community drinking water treatment. Here, we present the outcomes of a comprehensive scoping review of post-fire hydrologic studies in high-latitude forests of North America (Canada and Alaska). Our objectives were to (1) create an inventory of studies on post-fire hydrologic effects on surface water; (2) analyze those studies in terms of watershed characteristics and the type and duration of hydrologic effects; (3) identify and evaluate the link between upstream hydrologic effects with hydrologic ecosystem services; and (4) propose a research agenda addressing the link between wildfire science and hydrologic ecosystem services. We screened 2935 peer-reviewed articles and selected 82 studies to include based on their relevance according to a systematic, multi-step selection process. Next, we classified the papers into five themes: (a) runoff volume and flow regimes, (b) erosion and sediment transport, (c) water chemistry, (d) hydromorphology, and (e) aquatic food webs. For each study, we documented location, fire regime, watershed characteristics, and ecosystem services. The annual number of published studies on post-fire hydrology in high-latitude forests and, in particular, those addressing hydrologic ecosystem services, has increased steadily in recent years. Descriptions of wildfire characteristics, watershed characteristics, and effects on hydrologic ecosystem services were highly variable across studies, hindering cross-study comparisons. Moreover, there were limited efforts to extend study results to implications for forest or water management decisions regarding ecosystem services from source watersheds. Most studies focused on fire impacts on aquatic habitats and water chemistry while services of direct concern to communities, such as drinking water, were rarely addressed. We contend that study standardization, further use of geospatial technologies, and more studies directly addressing ecosystem services will help mitigate the increasing risks to water resources in northern forests.


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Wildland fire impacts on water yield across the contiguous United States
Dennis W. Hallema, Ge Sun, Peter Caldwell, François Robinne, Kevin D. Bladon, Steven P. Norman, Yongqiang Liu, Erika Cohen, Steven G. McNulty

Wildland fires in the contiguous United States (CONUS) have increased in size and severity, but much remains unclear about the impact of fire size and burn severity on water supplies used for drinking, irrigation, industry, and hydropower. While some have investigated large-scale fire patterns, long-term effects on runoff, and the simultaneous effect of fire and climate trends on surface water yield, no studies account for all these factors and their interactions at the same time. In this report, we present critical new information for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy—a first-time CONUS-wide assessment of observed and potential wildland fire impacts on surface water yield. First, we analyzed data from 168 fire-affected locations, collected between 1984 and 2013, with machine learning and used climate elasticity models to correct for the local climate baseline impact. Stream gage data show that annual river flow increased most in the Lower Mississippi and Lower and Upper Colorado water resource regions, however they do not show which portion of this increase is caused by fire and which portion results from local climate trends. Our machine learning model identified local climate trends as the main driver of water yield change and determined wildland fires must affect at least 19 percent of a watershed >10 km2 to change its annual water yield. A closer look at 32 locations with fires covering at least 19 percent of a watershed >10 km2 revealed that wildfire generally enhanced annual river flow. Fires increased river flow relatively the most in the Lower Colorado, Pacific Northwest, and California regions. In the Lower Colorado and Pacific Northwest regions, flow increased despite post-fire drought conditions. In southern California, post-fire drought effects masked the flow enhancement attributed to wildfire, meaning that annual water yield declined but not as much as expected based on the decline in precipitation. Prescribed burns in the Southeastern United States did not produce a widespread effect on river flow, because the area affected was typically too small and characterized by only low burn severity. In the second stage of the assessment, we performed full-coverage simulations of the CONUS with the Water Supply Stress Index (WaSSI) hydrologic model (88,000 HUC-12-level watersheds) for the period between 2001 and 2010. This enables us to fill in the gaps of areas with scarce data and to identify regions with large potential increases in post-fire annual water yield (+10 to +50 percent): midto high-elevation forests in northeastern Washington, northwestern Montana, central Minnesota, southern Utah, Colorado, and South Dakota, and coastal forests in Georgia and northern Florida. A hypothetical 20-percent forest burn impact scenario for the CONUS suggests that surface yield can increase up to +10 percent in most watersheds, and even more in some watersheds depending on climate, soils, and vegetation. The insights gained from this quantitative analysis have major implications for flood mitigation and watershed restoration, and are vital to forest management policies aimed at reducing fire impact risk and improving water supply under a changing climate.


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Reframing the Challenge of Global Wildfire Threats to Water Supplies
Dennis W. Hallema, François Robinne, Kevin D. Bladon
Earth's Future, Volume 6, Issue 6

The timing, extent, and severity of forest wildfires have increased in many parts of the world in recent decades. These wildfires can have substantial and devastating impacts on water supply, ecohydrological systems, and sociohydrosystems. Existing frameworks to assess the magnitude and spatial extent of these effects generally focus on local processes or services and are not readily transferable to other regions. However, there is a growing need for regional, continental, and global scale indices to assess the potential effect of wildfires on freshwater availability and water supply resilience. Such indices must consider both the individual and compound effects of wildfires. In so doing, this will enable comprehensive insights on the water security paradigm and the value of hydrological services in fire‐affected areas around the globe.