Wildfire Ready Watersheds Program Innovates Solutions to Post-Fire Flood Before the Flames Begin

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February 13, 2024 - In recent years, Colorado has experienced the most devastating fires in the state’s history—resulting not only in damages from the flames themselves, but also in post-fire flooding and watershed impacts that ravaged communities and ecosystems. 


The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Wildfire Ready Watersheds program seeks to innovate better solutions to these impacts to equip our state with the ability to mitigate for post-wildfire hazards before fires burn. The program assesses risks and hazards, and provides a template action plan for water users, local government, nonprofits, conservation districts, and emergency management across the state.


“When it comes to mitigation, we want to be ahead of the fires, not just in reaction mode,” said Chris Sturm, CWCB Watershed Program Director. “Our goal is to get experts together to collaborate on solutions to post-wildfire floods long before they happen, because that’s the best time to have those discussions.”


Guided by a $30 million Senate Bill signed by Governor Polis in 2021, the Wildfire-Ready Watersheds program assesses the susceptibility of Colorado’s water resources, communities, and critical infrastructure to post-wildfire impacts and advances a framework for communities to plan and implement mitigation strategies to minimize these impacts—before wildfires occur.


“Impacts from wildfires don’t stop when the flames do. As a wildland firefighter, I’ve seen firsthand how devastating the impacts from wildfires can be on water supplies, infrastructure, communities, and our local habitats and beyond,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Department of Natural Resources. “This program does something important: it helps predict where the worst post-wildfire impacts might be felt, and thus can inform response efforts where they are needed most.”


After a wildfire burns, erosion of soil and runoff of rainfall can increase by several orders of magnitude over pre-fire conditions. Resulting floods and runoff impact water quality, reservoir capacity, water delivery and transportation infrastructure such as bridges, degrade aquatic habitat, and threaten life and property. 


To combat the impacts of post-wildfire hazards, the Wildfire-Ready Watersheds program seeks to identify susceptible parts of our state’s infrastructure, guide planning and response efforts, and inform scientists, stakeholders, and decision makers through several efforts:


  • Statewide Study: The CWCB conducted a statewide susceptibility study to investigate the susceptibility of life, safety, infrastructure, and water supplies to post-wildfire erosion, sedimentation, flooding, and water quality degradation.
  • Interactive WebsiteWildfireReadWatersheds.com houses interactive maps and illustrations, comprehensive and easy-to-understand overviews of all aspects of the program, videos, podcasts, resources, and more.  
  • Action Plans: CWCB is collaborating with community leaders on guidance for local watershed agency groups and government agencies to produce high-resolution post-fire susceptibility information and to identify fire mitigation and impact reduction projects to lessen the hurt that communities feel after a wildfire. 
  • Grant Program: CWCB released the Colorado Watershed Restoration Program to focus on the development of Wildfire Ready Watershed action plans and implementation of projects designed to mitigate post wildfire impacts. Learn more and apply here.

“The Wildfire Ready Watersheds program fills a critical need: in order to better equip ourselves to handle hazards, we need to prepare for them early. We can’t plan for a disaster after the disaster happens,” said Lauren Ris, CWCB Director. “This program innovates these solutions, to inform and develop mitigation strategies to restore and rehabilitate our watersheds for the years to come.”