Reports gauge severity of soil damage from East Troublesome, Williams Fork fires |

Reports gauge severity of soil damage from East Troublesome, Williams Fork fires

This photo shows a comparison of low soil burn severity with roots and structure (top of shovel) versus high soil burn severity with no soil structure or roots to help bind soil (bottom of shovel).
Photo from the U.S. Forest Service


GRANBY — The East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires scorched almost 200,000 acres across nearby Grand County this summer and fall, and new assessments from the U.S. Forest Service detail how badly the land was burned.

Soil burn severity maps cover a fire’s perimeter and serve as important reference tools that span multiple jurisdictions. For that reason, the Forest Service sees these maps as one of the most valuable work products that a Burned Area Emergency Response assessment team can produce.

The new assessments for the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires were released Thursday, Dec. 24, along with the burn maps for the two fires.

The assessments focus on post-fire threats to life and safety, property, natural resources and cultural resources on national forest lands along with offering some recommendations for how local, state and federal officials might mitigate the aftereffects.

The assessment teams do this by trying to determine soil burn severity and where post-fire snowmelt and precipitation events could lead to increased runoff, flooding, erosion, sediment delivery and heightened debris flows.

What is soil burn severity?

According to the Forest Service, the first step for identifying post-fire threats is to develop a soil burn severity map documenting the degree to which soil properties have changed from fire.

Fire-damaged soils can have low strength, high root mortality and increased erosion rates, especially as the severity of the fire damage worsens.

The maps break the damage down into four classifications — high, moderate, low and unburned — decided by soil properties such as forest floor cover, ash color, integrity of roots and their structure, and water repellency.

Low and unburned areas have minimal effects to the soil and, therefore, little to no noticeable impacts after the fire. At the same time, moderate burn areas indicate that some soil properties have been affected with as much as 80% of the duff and litter layer, which absorbs precipitation like a sponge, being consumed by flames.

On the extreme end, findings include significant alterations to the soil with the complete consumption of litter and duff, a loss of root viability and changes that can lead to increased erosion and runoff.

The East Troublesome Fire

First reported Oct. 14 in the Arapaho National Forest, the East Troublesome Fire spread over 10,000 acres in three days and became the largest blaze in Grand County history when it exploded from 18,550 to 187,964 acres from Oct. 20-23. The cause is still under investigation.

Like many wildfires this summer and fall, the Troublesome blaze was fueled by widespread drought, dead and beetle-killed trees, high winds and poor overnight humidity recovery.

Its flames crossed Colorado Highway 125 on Oct. 21 and raced east into the Rocky Mountain National Park, jumping over the Continental Divide and reaching the western edge of Estes Park on Oct. 23.

Two teams from the Forest Service were required to complete the Burned Area Emergency Response assessment, and early season snowfall hampered their efforts and kept them from conducting a field survey in most of the burned area.

While the U.S. Forest Service has created a soil burn severity map for the entire fire outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the report notes that “a significant assessment workload of other critical Forest Service values remains and will be resumed in late spring 2021.”

According to the assessment, most of the land affected by the Troublesome fire falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, with 132,916 acres of national forest burned.

However, more than 19,600 acres of private property also burned in the fire, and another 17,858 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management were affected. The smallest portion of the burned area — 832 acres — is owned by the state.

This chart included in the East Troublesome Fire Burned Area Emergency Response assessment shows the distribution of land burned by ownership and severity.

Interestingly, 37% of the land suffered only low burn damage, 48% sustained moderate damage and 5% saw high soil burn severity. Only 10% of the land included in the East Troublesome Fire’s perimeter was characterized as unburned.

With an estimated 53% of the affected area seeing high or moderate soil burn severity, there will be an increased potential for erosion and flooding, especially in areas with high damage, according to the assessment.

The assessment also warns that areas that flood or had high debris flows before the fire are likely to see larger magnitude events after the fire. Also, areas that occasionally flood or have debris flows could see more frequent events, and areas that previously did not have streamflow or debris flows may now flood or have debris flows.

The predicted erosion rates are not expected to affect long-term soil productivity, but increased erosion can result in downstream sediment delivery that bulks flows and increases flooding effects. Increased erosion also can block culverts and other infrastructure and degrade water quality.

“This elevated post-fire response will gradually diminish as vegetation and ground cover levels recover each growing season, although some impacts including elevated snowmelt runoff are likely to persist for a decade or longer,” the report states, explaining that the degree of watershed response will be commensurate to the soil burn severity.

The soil burn severity map for the Williams Fork Fire was also released Thursday, Dec. 24.
Map from the U.S. Forest Service

Williams Fork Fire

The final Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Williams Fork Fire was completed Oct. 2, though after its completion, the fire kicked back up and the perimeter grew on the northern and southern ends.

The Williams Fork Fire was fueled by the same conditions that allowed the East Troublesome Fire to grow so fast.

Overall, the assessment found an estimated 60% of the area within the Williams Fork Fire perimeter had high or moderate soil burn severity.

“Increased erosion and flood flow potential are expected within and from these areas,” the report concluded, adding that the potential for erosion will be contingent on a variety of characteristics, such as soil texture, rock fragment content, slope and the soil burn severity and distribution.

With limited options for reducing post-fire peak stream flows, soil erosion and debris flows with either the Williams Fork Fire or the East Troublesome Fire, both assessments recommend focusing on mitigation measures to minimize threats to life and safety as well as damage to property.

These measures could be road and trail closures, trail stabilization, campground treatments and warning signs.

Additional road and weed treatments, and other treatments to protect natural and cultural resources, could be necessary during a follow-up assessment that’s expected in the spring or early summer.

East Troublesome Fire BAER report.pdf

Williams Fork Fire BAER report.pdf

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