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Postwildfire soil‐hydraulic recovery and the persistence of debris flow hazards

May 3, 2021

Deadly and destructive debris flows often follow wildfire, but understanding of changes in the hazard potential with time since fire is poor. We develop a simulation‐based framework to quantify changes in the hydrologic triggering conditions for debris flows as postwildfire infiltration properties evolve through time. Our approach produces time‐varying rainfall intensity‐duration thresholds for runoff‐ and infiltration‐generated debris flows with physics‐based hydrologic simulations that are parameterized with widely available hydroclimatic, vegetation reflectance, and soil texture data. When we apply our thresholding protocol to a test case in the San Gabriel Mountains (California, USA), the results are consistent with existing regional empirical thresholds and rainstorms that caused runoff‐ and infiltration‐generated debris flows soon after and three years following a wildfire, respectively. We find that the hydrologic triggering mechanisms for the two observed debris flow types are coupled with the effects of fire on the soil saturated hydraulic conductivity. Specifically, the rainfall intensity needed to generate debris flows via runoff increases with time following wildfire while the rainfall duration needed to produce debris flows via subsurface pore‐water pressures decreases. We also find that variations in soil moisture, rainfall climatology, median grain size, and root reinforcement could impact the median annual probability of postwildfire debris flows. We conclude that a simulation‐based method for calculating rainfall thresholds is a tractable approach to improve situational awareness of debris flow hazard in the years following wildfire. Further development of our framework will be important to quantify postwildfire hazard levels in variable climates, vegetation types, and fire regimes.

Publication Year 2021
Title Postwildfire soil‐hydraulic recovery and the persistence of debris flow hazards
DOI 10.1029/2021JF006091
Authors Matthew A. Thomas, Francis K. Rengers, Jason W. Kean, Luke A. McGuire, Dennis M. Staley, Katherine R. Barnhart, Brian A. Ebel
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Index ID 70220332
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center