Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Multi-model comparison of computed debris flow runout for the 9 January 2018 Montecito, California post-wildfire event

November 18, 2021

Hazard assessment for post-wildfire debris flows, which are common in the steep terrain of the western United States, has focused on the susceptibility of upstream basins to generate debris flows. However, reducing public exposure to this hazard also requires an assessment of hazards in downstream areas that might be inundated during debris flow runout. Debris flow runout models are widely available, but their application to hazard assessment for post-wildfire debris flows has not been extensively tested. Necessary inputs to these models include the total volume of the mobilized flow, flow properties (either inherent material properties or calibration coefficients), and site topography. Estimates of volume are possible in post-event (“back calculation”) studies, yet before an event, volume is an uncertain quantity. We simulated debris flow runout for the well-constrained 9 January 2018 Montecito event using three models (RAMMS, FLO2D, and D-Claw) to determine the relative importance of volume and flow properties. We broke the impacted area into three domains, and for each model-domain combination, we performed a numerical sampling study in which volume and flow properties varied within a wide, but plausible range. We assessed model performance based on inundation patterns and peak flow depths. We found all models could simulate the event with comparable results. Simulation performance was most sensitive to flow volume and less sensitive to flow properties. Our results emphasize the importance of reducing uncertainty in pre-event estimates of flow volume for hazard assessment.