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Estimated probability of postwildfire debris flows in the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire burn area, southwestern New Mexico

August 29, 2012

In May and June 2012, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire burned approximately 1,200 square kilometers (300,000 acres) of the Gila National Forest, in southwestern New Mexico. The burned landscape is now at risk of damage from postwildfire erosion, such as that caused by debris flows and flash floods. This report presents a preliminary hazard assessment of the debris-flow potential from 128 basins burned by the Whitewater-Baldy Fire. A pair of empirical hazard-assessment models developed by using data from recently burned basins throughout the intermountain Western United States was used to estimate the probability of debris-flow occurrence and volume of debris flows along the burned area drainage network and for selected drainage basins within the burned area. The models incorporate measures of areal burned extent and severity, topography, soils, and storm rainfall intensity to estimate the probability and volume of debris flows following the fire. In response to the 2-year-recurrence, 30-minute-duration rainfall, modeling indicated that four basins have high probabilities of debris-flow occurrence (greater than or equal to 80 percent). For the 10-year-recurrence, 30-minute-duration rainfall, an additional 14 basins are included, and for the 25-year-recurrence, 30-minute-duration rainfall, an additional eight basins, 20 percent of the total, have high probabilities of debris-flow occurrence. In addition, probability analysis along the stream segments can identify specific reaches of greatest concern for debris flows within a basin. Basins with a high probability of debris-flow occurrence were concentrated in the west and central parts of the burned area, including tributaries to Whitewater Creek, Mineral Creek, and Willow Creek. Estimated debris-flow volumes ranged from about 3,000-4,000 cubic meters (m3) to greater than 500,000 m3 for all design storms modeled. Drainage basins with estimated volumes greater than 500,000 m3 included tributaries to Whitewater Creek, Willow Creek, Iron Creek, and West Fork Mogollon Creek. Drainage basins with estimated debris-flow volumes greater than 100,000 m3 for the 25-year-recurrence event, 24 percent of the basins modeled, also include tributaries to Deep Creek, Mineral Creek, Gilita Creek, West Fork Gila River, Mogollon Creek, and Turkey Creek, among others. Basins with the highest combined probability and volume relative hazard rankings for the 25-year-recurrence rainfall include tributaries to Whitewater Creek, Mineral Creek, Willow Creek, West Fork Gila River, West Fork Mogollon Creek, and Turkey Creek. Debris flows from Whitewater, Mineral, and Willow Creeks could affect the southwestern New Mexico communities of Glenwood, Alma, and Willow Creek. The maps presented herein may be used to prioritize areas where emergency erosion mitigation or other protective measures may be necessary within a 2- to 3-year period of vulnerability following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire. This work is preliminary and is subject to revision. It is being provided because of the need for timely "best science" information. The assessment herein is provided on the condition that neither the U.S. Geological Survey nor the U.S. Government may be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the assessment.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2012
Title Estimated probability of postwildfire debris flows in the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire burn area, southwestern New Mexico
DOI 10.3133/ofr20121188
Authors Anne C. Tillery, Anne Marie Matherne, Kristine L. Verdin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2012-1188
Index ID ofr20121188
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New Mexico Water Science Center