U.S. Joint Fire Science Program


Date of this Version


Document Type



JFSP Project Number: 08-1-5-19


US government work.


Prescribed fires and wildland fire-use are increasingly important management tools used to reduce fuel loads and restore the ecological integrity of western forests. Although a basic understanding of the effects of fire on aquatic ecosystems exists, the cumulative and possibly synergistic effects of wildfire following prescribed fire are unknown. Wildfires following prescribed fire may produce different burn severities and effects on riparian and stream ecosystems than wildfires in fire suppressed forests (e.g., fires absent >70 yrs) or prescribed fires alone. The goal of this study was to quantify and compare the effects of wildfire on stream and riparian ecosystems under three fire management practices: (1) wildfire following prescribed fire, (2) wildfire in fire suppressed forests, and (3) wildfire occurring at historic fire return intervals. We compared 6-7 years (2001-2006/07) of stream and riparian data collected prior to two large wildfire events to 3 years (2008-2010) of similar data collected after wildfire in catchments along the South Fork Salmon River and Big Creek in central Idaho. Here we report our preliminary findings on riparian- and catchment-level burn severity patterns, riparian forest structure, hydrology, amphibians, aquatic macroinvertebrates, periphyton, and instream habitat, including temperature, chemistry, substrate, sedimentation, and large woody debris. We found that the management practice of prescribed fire treatment prior to wildfire significantly reduced wildfire burn severity patterns in treated catchments relative to untreated catchments. This reduction in burn severity appeared to reduce wildfire effects on stream and riparian ecosystems rather than cause cumulative effects of prescribed fire plus wildfire. Instead, we found that the effects of natural inter-annual variability in stream flow and stochastic disturbances, such as debris flows and channel scouring events, are the dominant drivers of change in stream and riparian habitats in this region, with fire management practices playing a much smaller role.