FRISCO: managing Fire-induced RISks of water quality Contamination

  • FCT Project
  • National Research Project
  • 2020 to 2022

Land abandonment in the Mediterranean has led to widespread afforestation and increasingly frequent and more severe wildfires. Fires can contaminate streams with fine sediments, nutrients and ashes, impacting aquatic ecosystems and water supplies. There has been recent research on sediment and contaminant mobilization processes in burnt areas, but there have been difficulties in linking mobilization with stream contamination processes at larger scales.
There is an urgent need to provide more information to assess and manage post-fire contamination risks. We argue that the main difficulties can be surpassed by recent developments in understanding fire behavior and post-fire landscapes, where the FRISCO team has been involved:
1. The links between fire characteristics and hydrological impacts are not yet clear. This can be surpassed by combining remote sensing and modelling tools with studies on fire severity and impacts on vegetation and soils to estimate the hydrological impacts of fires at large scales.
2. The impacts of fires on contaminant transport pathways are poorly understood. This can be surpassed by recent advances in landscape connectivity theory and hydrological modeling of burnt areas, which can be combined with field research on contaminant mobilization and transport, to conduct studies at relevant scales for water management.
The main objective of FRISCO is to use these developments to answer the overall research question: How vulnerable are Mediterranean streams and water resources to contamination by wildfires?
FRISCO will focus on 4 study areas in Portugal with c. 2500 Km2 each, representative of the Mediterranean region. For each area and the period between 2001 and 2018, FRISCO will:
TASK 1: characterize the impacts of fires on vegetation and soils, by combining satellite imagery, field data and fire behavior modelling;
TASK 2: use this information, combined with new developments in connectivity theory and modelling, to characterize the impacts of fires on contaminant mobilization and transport to streams;
TASK 3: in coordination with water managers, characterize post-fire contamination episodes, and use historical water quality data to map their occurrence.
FRISCO will then combine the information and tools developed in these steps to build two products with practical applications for water managers in fire-prone areas:
TASK 4: develop a post-fire water contamination risk index, based on a statistical and machine-learning analysis of information on the impacts of fires on vegetation and soils (T1), contamination mobilization and transport (T2), and location of contamination episodes (T3). It will be co-developed with water managers and transformed into an online tool which can be applied with information readily available after the occurrence of fires.
TASK 5: integrate the contamination risk index in a stochastic fire occurrence model (13,30) an use this to test mitigation solutions - forest management, emergency hillslope stabilization and water treatment approaches - under present and future climate scenarios. This study will include local stakeholders, and results will be summarized in a practical handbook on best practices for post-fire contamination management, available online.
FRISCO will advance the state of the art by developing new knowledge on the relations between fire, vegetation, soils and water, overcoming a main limitation for further progress; help understand and assess the impacts of fire on the provision of hydrological services by forests (7,19); and take fire into account in assessing the impacts of climate and land use changes on water resources, addressing a major uncertainty in adaptation planning.
FRISCO integrates a multidisciplinary team of academic and management partners:
- Sciences / ULisboa (cE3c) leads the project and adds expertise in assessing and modeling hydrological and erosion processes in burnt areas, leading T2 and T4;
- Agronomy / ULisboa adds expertise on fire behavior and impacts, and statistical analysis, leading T1 and T5;
- Águas de Portugal, Serviços Ambientais (a water utility company) has hands-on expertise on water resources management and research interaction, leading T3;
- UAveiro adds specialized field expertise on post-fire hydrological processes.
The FRISCO team includes water and forest managers (AdP and the Forest Institute ICNF) to ensure that the results have practical application. Research excellence will be ensured by the supervision of international experts; the recent launch of COST Action Firelinks, where the FRISCO team is involved, makes this an excellent opportunity to coordinate research with other efforts at the European scale.

Funding Institution:

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia.


Fciencias.ID; Instituto Superior de Agronomia; Águas de Portugal, Serviços Ambientais; Universidade de Aveiro.