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The rainfall intensity-duration control of debris flows after wildfire

May 23, 2023

Increased wildfire activity in the western United States has exposed regional gaps in our understanding of postfire debris-flow generation. To address this problem, we characterized flows in an unstudied area to test the rainfall intensity-duration control of the hazard. Our rainfall measurements and field observations from the northern Sierra Nevada (California, USA) show that debris flows resulted from a short burst rainfall during a low-accumulation storm. In contrast, a much higher accumulation storm (∼10 times more rainfall) with lower short-duration rainfall rates only produced low-hazard flooding. We conclude that total storm rainfall is not an ideal metric for identifying the rainfall conditions that initiate runoff-generated debris flows in the first year after wildfire. Rather, a focus on short-duration (<1 hr), high-intensity rainfall that can occur during localized thunderstorms, or bands of intense rainfall during prolonged rainstorms, is more beneficial for the purposes of hazard assessment and warning.

Publication Year 2023
Title The rainfall intensity-duration control of debris flows after wildfire
DOI 10.1029/2023GL103645
Authors Matthew A. Thomas, Donald N. Lindsay, David B. Cavagnaro, Jason W. Kean, Scott W. McCoy, Andrew Paul Graber
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geophysical Research Letters
Index ID 70243884
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center