Climate change spawns evident consequences to the environment:  glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, seasonal and precipitation patterns are changing, and temperatures are climbing.  As less rain falls and droughts amplify in frequency and duration, there is an increased risk and occurrence of wildfires.  Dehydrated landscapes with reduced soil moisture and seared trees and plants provide fuel for wildfires, a scenario that has become commonplace to the Western United States.  In the period between 1984 and 2015, the number of large fires doubled.[1] The financial costs and human losses are significant, but there are also other less-examined costs, such as the impact of wildfires on water resources. 

Wildfires disrupt the natural processes that sustain water systems within the environment.  Plants and trees assume a primary role in controlling available water and nutrient supplies through their canopy and root systems. Soils offer filtration of precipitation through absorption and pollutant removal.  Animals, insects, and microorganisms, “break down organic material and dissolved compounds, further eliminating substances that contaminate drinking water.”[2] 

These disruptions impact both the quantity and quality of water resources and can be experienced from the point of origin to as far as 100 miles from the blaze and last for as long as decades after a fire.[3]   On the one hand, water used to extinguish the fire causes an increase in stream flow and groundwater volume; on the other, reduced soil absorption not only diminishes groundwater levels for a couple years but also increases the number of pollutants as the runoff collects hazardous particles. Other burned items, such as cars, homes, and businesses, can deposit contaminants that ultimately find their way into the water system.  Water pipes are also a source of contamination as they are typically unable to withstand the heat of fire and are often compromised.

Most of the Southwestern states rely primarily on surface water; however, as precipitation and snowmelt become scarce, and human activities overextend the available sources, groundwater becomes increasingly more valuable.  Both surface and groundwater sources are at risk from wildfire, making it crucial to find ways to protect water supplies.  Suggestions include enacting policy to address the roots of climate change (emissions), reducing vegetation through thinning or controlled burning, diversifying water sources, and adopting protective measures for municipal water systems, both for infrastructure and water filtration/purification.  Lack of action will augment the potential danger and place a region’s water security that is already vulnerable further at risk.



[1] “Wildfires and Climate Change.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 18 May 2022,

[2] Phillips, Carly A, and Kristina A Dahl. “Fire and Water in the Western United States.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 7 June 2022,

[3] Phillips, Carly A, and Kristina A Dahl. “Fire and Water in the Western United States.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 7 June 2022,