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Increasingly extreme wildfires are raging across the West – leaving behind barren, charred areas and threatening drinking water.

Jill Oropeza is director of sciences for water quality services for Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado.

She says in a healthy forest, trees and shrubs buffer the impact of rain on the ground. Pine needles and detritus on the forest floor help retain water.

“That is the sponge that soaks up and holds a lot of that moisture and allows the precipitation to percolate downwards,” she says.

If this vegetation burns up, melting snow and rain run across the land instead of seeping into the soil. And as the water flows, it picks up ash, sediment, and other debris.

“And those substances in the soil itself and the ash are dissolved and carried in the river and into reservoirs,” Oropeza says.

She says Fort Collins was forced to adjust its water treatment system to cope with influxes of contaminated water. And it’s using helicopters to spread mulch in burned areas to help plants start growing again.

Doing so is expensive but critical to providing people with clean water as the climate warms.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media