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Simulation hydrologic effects of wildfire on a small sub-alpine watershed in New Mexico, U.S.

January 27, 2021

Streamflow records available before and after wildfire in a small, mixed conifer, sub-alpine monsoonal dominated watershed in New Mexico provided a unique opportunity to calibrate a watershed model (PRMS) for pre- and postfire conditions. The calibrated model was then used to simulate the hydrologic effects of fire. Simulated postfire surface runoff averaged 14.7 times greater than prefire for the 29-year simulation period. The relationship between precipitation and streamflow changed dramatically after wildfire, largely from a decreased influence of antecedent soil moisture (ASM) and increased influence of canopy factors (less interception) and soil factors (greater hydrophobicity, less infiltration) in controlling surface runoff. For higher ASM, simulated pre- and postfire streamflow was similarly variable. However, for moderate and lower ASM, soil water storage was too low to contribute baseflow for either prefire or postfire conditions, and thus postfire streamflow maintained a linear, surface runoff-dominated response to precipitation, whereas prefire streamflow showed little response. Postfire streamflow efficiency increased with ASM from a mean of 0.02 at the lowest ASM to 0.30 at the highest ASM, whereas prefire conditions showed no sensitivity to ASM at low to moderate ASM. Postfire streamflow increased (2.1 times greater median flow than prefire), particularly from increased surface runoff (14.7 times greater), which occurred across all ASM conditions. As a result, streamflow shifted from baseflow-dominated to surface runoff-dominated after wildfire. This result indicates that substantial increases in runoff efficiency (20% or more of precipitation volume) can occur across a range of ASM postfire, which may have severe consequences for flooding. This result also indicates that monitoring of soil moisture would enhance raingauge networks for early flood warning.