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Hydrogeomorphic recovery and temporal changes in rainfall thresholds for debris flows following wildfire

November 8, 2021

Wildfire-induced changes to soil and vegetation promote runoff-generated debris flows in steep watersheds. Postfire debris flows are most commonly observed in steep watersheds during the first wet season following a wildfire, but it is unclear how long the elevated threat of debris flow persists and why debris-flow potential changes in recovering burned areas. This work quantifies how rainfall intensity-duration (ID) thresholds for debris-flow initiation change with time since burning and provides a mechanistic explanation for these changes. We constrained a hydrologic model using field and remotely sensed measurements of soil-infiltration capacity, vegetation cover, runoff, and debris-flow activity. We applied this model to estimate rainfall ID thresholds for debris-flow initiation within three burned areas in the southwestern United States over a postfire recovery period of three to four years. Modeling suggests ID thresholds are lowest immediately following the fire (below a one-year recurrence interval [RI] storm) and increase with time, such that a 10- to 25-year RI storm would be required to generate a debris flow after three years of recovery. Modeled changes in rainfall ID thresholds result from increases in soil infiltration capacity, canopy interception, hydraulic roughness, and median grain size of sediment entrained in an incipient debris flow. The relative importance of each of these factors varied among our three sites. Results improve our ability to assess temporal changes in postfire debris-flow potential, highlight how site-specific factors may alter the persistence of postfire debris-flow hazards, and provide additional constraints on the timescale of recovery following wildfire.

Publication Year 2021
Title Hydrogeomorphic recovery and temporal changes in rainfall thresholds for debris flows following wildfire
DOI 10.1029/2021JF006374
Authors Olivia J. Hoch, Luke A. McGuire, Ann M. Youberg, Francis K. Rengers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title JGR Earth Surface
Index ID 70231399
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center