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Prolonged drought in a northern California coastal region suppresses wildfire impacts on hydrology

July 21, 2023

Wildfires naturally occur in many landscapes, however they are undergoing rapid regime shifts. Despite the emphasis in the literature on the most severe hydrological responses to wildfire, there remains a knowledge gap on the thresholds of wildfire (i.e. burned area/drainage area ratio, BAR) required to initiate hydrological responses. We investigated hydrological changes in the Russian River Watershed (RRW) in California, a coastal, Mediterranean, drought-prone, wildfire-adapted ecosystem, following ten wildfires that burned 30% of the watershed. Our findings suggest that sub-watersheds of the RRW have not burned beyond an intrinsic, unknown, threshold required to initiate change. Using paired watersheds, we examined spatiotemporal patterns of pre-and-post wildfire hydrology with a rainfall-runoff hydrological model. Even though these successive wildfires burned 1-50% of each sub-watershed (1-30% at moderate/high severity), we found little evidence of wildfire-related shifts in hydrology. As a function of BAR, wildfire imposed limited effects on runoff ratios (runoff/precipitation) and runoff residuals (observations - model simulations). Our findings that post-wildfire runoff enhancements asymptote beyond 30% burn indicate that when a watershed is burned beyond a certain threshold, the magnitude of the hydrologic response no longer increases. Drought and storm conditions explained much of the variability observed in streamflow, whereas wildfire explained only moderate variability in streamflow even when wildfire accounted for >45% BAR. While the BAR in the RRW was sufficiently beyond previously reported minimum disturbance thresholds (>20% burned forest), the lack of hydrological response is attributed to buffering effects of wildfire adaptation and drought factors that are unique to Mediterranean ecoregions.

Publication Year 2023
Title Prolonged drought in a northern California coastal region suppresses wildfire impacts on hydrology
Authors Michelle E. Newcomer, Jennifer C. Underwood, Sheila F. Murphy, Craig Ulrich, Todd Schram, Stephen R. Maples, Jasquelin Peña, Erica R. Siirila-Woodburn, Marcus Trotta, Jay Jasperse, Donald Seymour, Susan S. Hubbard
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Water Resources Research
Index ID 70247092
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Laboratory & Analytical Services Division