Forest landscapes generate 57 percent of runoff worldwide and supply water to more than 4 billion people (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). As the world population continues to increase, there is a strong need to understand how forest processes link together in a cascade to provide people with water services like hydropower, aquaculture, drinking water and flood protection (Carvalho-Santos, Honrado and Hein, 2014).
Wildfire is a major disturbance affecting forested watersheds and the water they provide (Box 1) (Paton et al., 2015). Several regions have experienced shifts in wildfires from natural ignition sources (primarily lightning) to ignitions dominated by human activities, especially in areas where populations are increasing (Moritz et al., 2014; Balch et al., 2017). Occasional wildfire is essential for the health and functioning of fire-adapted ecosystems through its effects on nutrient cycling, plant diversity and succession, and pest regulation (Pausas and Keeley, 2019). It also reduces the risk of subsequent wildfires until a forest has accumulated sufficient fuels and conditions are conducive for another fire.
Extreme and hazardous wildfires, on the other hand, can cause erosion, gullying, soil loss and flooding – and, in severe cases, even debris flows and flash floods – by removing the protective functions of forests on hillsides (Ebel and Moody, 2017). Extreme wildfires have become more common after decades of fire suppression, allowing forests to become much denser with vegetation and causing more fuels to build up over time. Combined with increasing summer drought, this can have impacts on water yield and the ability of upstream forests to deliver high-quality water because forest vegetation uses less water immediately after fire and, in environments influenced by snow, more snow can accumulate in forest clearings (Kinoshita and Hogue, 2015; Hallema et al., 2019). Therefore, accounting for wildfire impacts on forests in water planning has become a priority for the nexus of fire, water and society or, in other words, the connection between fire risk and water security (Figure 1) (Martin, 2016). In this article, we discuss managed forest landscapes as nature-based solutions for water and explore how fire affects the provision of water-related services.