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Wildfires can be harmful to Montana's rivers and aquatic life

Posted at 5:56 PM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 19:56:12-04

BUTTE — While firefighters have been working hard at the Alder Creek Fire near Wise River to protect homes and property in the area, they’re also trying to protect another important resource.

“It does seem a little counterintuitive that water and fire are opposites, so it seems counterintuitive that a fire can affect the water but it does deeply because of the landscape that the fire's affecting,” said Rayelynn Brandl of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program.

Crews have been cutting out defensible containment lines to try to prevent the fire from spreading too close to the river.

“As water travels across the landscape draining into the river, it’s going to carry with it all the things that are left behind, so as you have this fire race through, you’re leaving behind a lot of organic carbon that loaded into the stream, nutrients can get loaded in,” said Brandl.

Experts say that all that burnt-up material can get into the river through runoff, contaminating the environment and is harmful to aquatic life.

“So as we get high water flows into the river and you erode off all of the soil, it becomes extremely turbid in the river, so that’s like air pollution to us, is turbidity to fish. So they have a hard time breathing, their gills get clogged up with things. The nutrients that get loaded in can cause excessive plant growth later on in the season,” said Brandl.

Rivers naturally repair themselves over time, but experts say increased wildfire activity gives rivers and streams less time to repair.