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Effects of Wildfire on the Hydrology of Capulin and Rito de los Frijoles canyons, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

August 1, 2002

In June of 1977, the La Mesa wildfire burned 15,270 acres in and around Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier National Monument and the adjacent Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. The Dome wildfire in April of 1996 in Bandelier National Monument burned 16,516 acres in Capulin Canyon and the surrounding Dome Wilderness area. Both watersheds are characterized by abundant and extensive archeological sites that could be affected by increased runoff and accelerated rates of erosion, which typically occur after a wildfire. The U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the National Park Service monitored the wildfires' effects on streamflow in both canyons. The magnitude of large stormflows increased dramatically after these wildfires; peak flows at the most downstream streamflow-gaging station in Frijoles and Capulin Canyons increased to about 160 times the maximum recorded flood prior to the fire. Maximum peak flow was 3,030 cubic feet per second at the gaging station in Frijoles Canyon (drainage area equals 18.1 square miles) and 3,630 cubic feet per second at the most downstream crest-stage gage in Capulin Canyon (drainage area equals 14.1 square miles). The pre-fire maximum peak flow recorded in these two canyons was 19 and an estimated 25 cubic feet per second, respectively. As vegetation reestablished itself during the second year, the post-fire annual maximum peak flow decreased to about 10 to 15 times the pre-fire annual maximum peak flow. During the third year, maximum annual peak flows decreased to about three to five times the pre-fire maximum peak flow. In the 22 years since the La Mesa wildfire, flood magnitudes have not completely returned to pre-fire size. Post-fire flood magnitudes in Frijoles and Capulin Canyons do not exceed the maximum floods per drainage area for physiographic regions 5 and 6 in New Mexico. For a burned watershed, however, the peak flows that occur after a wildfire are several orders of magnitude larger than normal forested watershed peak flows. The frequency of larger stormflows also increased in response to the effects of the wildfires in both canyons. In Frijoles Canyon, the number of peak stormflows greater than the pre-fire maximum flow of 19 cubic feet per second was 15 in 1977, 9 in 1978, and 5 in 1979, which is about the magnitude of the maximum pre-fire peak flow in both canyons. Again the hydrologic effects of a wildfire seem to be more pronounced for the 3 years following the date of the fire. Likewise, larger peakflows occurred more frequently in Capulin Canyon for the first 3 years after the 1996 wildfire. Median suspended-sediment concentrations in samples collected in Frijoles Canyon in 1977 were 1,330 milligrams per liter; median concentrations were 16 milligrams per liter after the watershed stabilized in 1993-95. The annual load calculated from regression equations for load compared to flow for the first year after the wildfire was 220 times the annual load for the post-recovery period. To convey the increased frequency and magnitude of average flows in Capulin Canyon after the 1996 Dome wildfire, the stream channel in Capulin Canyon increased in flow capacity by widening and downcutting. As Capulin Canyon peak flows have decreased in both magnitude and frequency with vegetative recovery, the stream channel also has slowly begun to readjust. The channel at the most downstream crest-stage gage, which has the shallowest initial valley slope, is showing the first signs of aggradation.

Publication Year 2002
Title Effects of Wildfire on the Hydrology of Capulin and Rito de los Frijoles canyons, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
DOI 10.3133/wri20024152
Authors Jack E. Veenhuis
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 2002-4152
Index ID wri20024152
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New Mexico Water Science Center