Almeda Fire Monitoring -Post Fire Impacts on Water Quality

Project Background

The Bear Creek Watershed feeds into the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The watershed encompasses the Medford urban area and includes the municipalities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, Jacksonville, and Jackson County. This project focuses on the area along Bear Creek which was burned by the Almeda fire in September 2020. A larger fire, the South Obenchain Fire, also ignited in September 2020 and burned a large portion of forest and some structures in the Rogue River Watershed. This project, however, focuses on potential impacts due to the urban aspect of the Almeda Fire.  

The Almeda Fire began as a small brush fire in a field in northern Ashland and was stoked by strong winds from the south and moved quickly along the Bear Creek Corridor through rural, residential, and agricultural lands, along highways and the Bear Creek Riparian Corridor, burning numerous businesses, homes, fields, and vehicles from Ashland to South Medford. The fire burned approximately 3,000 acres and damaged over 2,500 homes and 600 businesses, as well as 11+ miles of riparian vegetation (trees, shrubs, and ground cover) along Bear Creek and several tributaries.

Oregon has never in recorded history experienced a fire of this magnitude in a primarily urban environment. An urban fire of this magnitude presents water quality concerns of short-, mid-, and long-term duration. Toxic materials from destroyed homes and businesses, farm properties, and materials used in firefighting have been distributed through ash, smoke, and sediment – into the air, soils, and water. The mixture of chemicals potentially released by the number and variety of structures and materials burned or damaged by heat is a significant and currently unknown concern. Additionally, reduction of vegetation and fire-induced soil modifications can result in increased flow rates and land erosion, creation of dioxins, and volatilization of metals that are deposited on downstream soils impacting water bodies and aquatic health. As sites are cleaned up, debris and soil removed, and restoration and rebuilding takes place, materials continue to enter the stream, washing into the creeks directly or through storm drains and groundwater. Impacts are heightened by the dramatic loss of riparian vegetation. Research shows that the most significant impacts occur 2-5 years post fire. 

Goals and Objectives

The Goal of the project is to assess the magnitude and persistence of the Almeda urban wildfire impacts on water quality.

Objective 1:  Analyze existing data collected by the monitoring team to date and summarize how the Almeda fire has impacted water quality in Bear Creek. This objective is to answer the following monitoring questions:

  1. Has the Almeda fire impacted water quality?
  2. What and where are impacts being seen?

Objective 2:  Develop and implement a monitoring plan for instream sampling of Bear Creek, selected tributaries, and storm drains over at least two years to determine longer term impacts on water quality from an urban burn. This objective is to answer the following monitoring questions:

  1. What are priority locations for collecting and analyzing parameters?
  2. What are priority parameters to collect post fire?
  3. How long should samples be collected (years)?
  4. When and how often should samples be collected?

Objective 3:  Identify the toxic materials that continue to enter Bear Creek and tributaries from burned areas.  This objective is to answer the following monitoring questions:

  1. What toxic materials are entering from storm drains in the burned area?
  2. Are there other sources of toxic materials?
  3. What are the primary toxic materials of concern (if any) based on sampling results?

Objective 4:  Evaluate water quality monitoring data (project findings) to answer the following questions:

  1. How long do fire impacts remain in the streams (based on a study length of appx 3 years).
  2. What are the main concerns (nutrients, toxics, erosion) in Bear Creek as a result of the fire?
  3. How does the data inform ongoing restoration, stabilization, and water quality improvement actions?

Monitoring Team

  • Jacob Kahn, Aquatic Ecosciences
  • Bill Meyers, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
  • Jennie Morgan – Rogue Valley Sewer Services
  • Amy Patton, Patton Environmental
  • Amie Siedlecki – Rogue Valley Council of Governments
  • John Speece – Rogue River Watershed Council
  • Greg Stabach, Rogue Valley Council of Governments

Project Map – OWEB Monitoring Locations

Documents (under development)

Funding/Funders

-SAP

-QAPP

-Monitoring Plan

-Data Sheets

-Results

Organizations providing funding and/or match for the monitoring project include the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Rogue Valley Sewer Services, Rogue River Watershed Council, the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, Patton Environmental, and the Bear Creek DMAs (local TMDL Programs).