Wildfire effects documented in extensive research project 0
Nine years have passed since the Lost Creek wildfire-a terrifyingly vast wall of flames-rolled over Turtle and Hillcrest Mountains, threatening the communities and livelihood of the Crowsnest Pass.
Known to be one of the most severe forest fires to hit these eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the blaze annihilated 210 square kilometers of forested area.
Years after the events of the wildfire, mementoes-watersheds consisting of scorched toothpick trees stretching skyward-and resident memories are still just as vivid, not only on the landscape, but in the local history as well.
Apart from the forest itself, there was luckily little damage reported and there were no lives lost from what was one of the major landform disturbances to ever hit the Crowsnest Pass.
Now, eight long years of research into the ecological consequences of the Lost Creek wildfire are showing the effects on this mountain valley and across the Old Man River basin are likely to be long lived.
On August 27, the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre was the site of the first of a three part series of lectures, hosted by the Crowsnest River Watershed group-part of the Crowsnest Conservation Society.
Michael Wagner, with the University of Alberta, was the evening's guest speaker. As a forest hydrologist and registered professional forester, he spoke at length about the extensive Southern Rockies Watershed Project (SRWP) research in the Crowsnest Pass and throughout southern Alberta.
Much of his speech focused in on ecological impacts of the fire, including discussion about changes to water quantity, water quality and aquatic ecology.
"The Lost Creek fire was like someone dropped a nuclear bomb on the landscape," Wagner said during his speech. "There was nothing left. This is the most severe wildfire I've ever seen and I used to fight forest fires."
A network of researchers from Canada, the United States as well as Europe makes up the vast research team. Wagner, who holds a Masters of Science in hydrology, works alongside project lead and University of Alberta professor Uldis Silins.
Large field crews have had their hands full around the clock since 2004, as they maintain, install and perform the general science-simply put, getting their hands and feet wet.
"There was absolutely no forest cover left," Wagner said. "This fire was so hot that it just vaporized all the trees. There was no riparian area left intact. All of the soil on some of the slopes was absent."
Research began with two primary objectives-questions regarding water quantity as well as water quality-with the third coming son after-regional water effects propagating as far as the Old Man reservoir, Pincher Creek, Cardston, Lethbridge and even Calgary.
Recently, a panel of experts described the SRWP as one of the first major efforts at a global scale to provide a comprehensive assessment of forest disturbance impact from source to tap.
"We live in the headwaters of the east slopes of the Old Man river basin and we really lack some basic fundamental information on how these water supply regions function as the water towers of the rest of the province," explained Wagner.
As part of the research, many of the changes are witnessed in three different styles of watersheds-an unburned control, burned watersheds, as well as burned and then salvage logged watersheds-in order to fully understand the differences.
Just as there is no canopy in the burned watersheds, research data shows issues regarding water timing as well as water production-when and how much water are we seeing during spring melt.
"The volume of water that is coming off these burned watersheds is almost 70 per cent more than these unburned watersheds," he said. "That's substantial."
Not only is more rain hitting the forest floor, winter data shows there is 50 to 200 per cent more water in the snow pack-a direct result of a reduction of canopy interception-in the burned and burned and salvaged logged forests.
Wagner noted spring melt in these cases is occurring anywhere from two days to two weeks earlier. Though more water is coming off the charred landscapes, water isn't coming at a time of year where it is required, Wagner explained.
When it comes to water quality, researchers are noting changes in nitrogen levels, phosphorous as well as sediment moving through the rivers and streams.
"Some of the 2004, 2005 (nitrogen) samples were some of the highest values we've ever observed in the scientific literature," Wagner said.
Nutrient poor streams in the Crowsnest Pass-known to be eligotrophic-are gaining an ecological boost from the increased levels of phosphorous.
Fish and Wildlife officers have lended a helping hand in sampling fish from all three scientific styles of watersheds. Increased phosphorous has in some parts seen a jump in algae production, which has a direct result on the insects and subsequently the fish.
"The two to three year old cutthroat trout are heavier in the burned streams and they're actually longer too," he said.
Sediment cores taken from the lakebed of the Old Man Reservoir and subsequently dated have shown researchers a clear indication that sediment and soot from the Lost Creek fire is being transported throughout the river basin.
"A lot more sediment is being carried through the Crowsnest and the Castle Rivers from the Lost Creek Wildfire and ultimately ending up in the Old Man Reservoir," Wagner said.
With the question of sediment being transported across Alberta, questions remain as to how to treat the water. Though there is more sediment moving through the burned watersheds, the burned and subsequently salvaged systems are seeing even higher results.
Research staff are working with water treatment facility operators in Pincher Creek, the Crowsnest Pass, Cardston and even Calgary.
"We're trying to offer some advice to water treatment operators as to what might you expect if there's a large disturbance in your source water supply region," Wagner explained.
Right now, research is shifting to more emphasis on source water to tap initiatives, as seen by the push to understand how sediment is transported throughout the Old Man River basin.