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Thresholds for post-wildfire debris flows: Insights from the Pinal Fire, Arizona, USA

December 27, 2019

Wildfire significantly alters the hydrologic properties of a burned area, leading to increases in overland flow, erosion, and the potential for runoff-generated debris flows. The initiation of debris flows in recently burned areas is well-characterized by rainfall intensity-duration (ID) thresholds. However, there is currently a paucity of data quantifying the rainfall intensities required to trigger post-wildfire debris flows, which limits our understanding of how and why rainfall ID thresholds vary in different climatic and geologic settings. In this study, we monitored debris-flow activity following the Pinal Fire in central Arizona, which differs from both a climatic and hydrogeomorphic perspective from other regions in the western U.S. where ID thresholds for post-wildfire debris flows are well-established, namely the Transverse Ranges of southern CA. Since the peak rainfall intensity within a rainstorm may exceed the rainfall intensity required to trigger a debris flow, the development of robust rainfall ID thresholds requires knowledge of the timing of debris flows within rainstorms. Existing post-wildfire debris-flow studies in Arizona only constrain the peak rainfall intensity within debris-flow-producing storms, which may far exceed the intensity that actually triggered the observed debris flow. In this study, we used pressure transducers within 5 burned drainage basins to constrain the timing of debris flows within rainstorms. Rainfall ID thresholds derived here from triggering rainfall intensities are, on average, 22 mm/h lower than ID thresholds derived under the assumption that the triggering intensity is equal to the maximum rainfall intensity recorded during a rainstorm. We then use a hydrologic model to demonstrate that the magnitude of the 15-minute rainfall ID threshold at the Pinal Fire site is associated with the rainfall intensity required to exceed a recently proposed dimensionless discharge threshold for debris-flow initiation. Model results further suggest that previously observed differences in regional ID thresholds between Arizona and the San Gabriel Mountains of southern CA may be attributed, in large part, to differences in the hydraulic properties of burned soils.

Publication Year 2020
Title Thresholds for post-wildfire debris flows: Insights from the Pinal Fire, Arizona, USA
DOI 10.1002/esp.4805
Authors Carissa A Raymond, Luke A. McGuire, Ann M. Youberg, Dennis M. Staley, Jason W. Kean
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
Index ID 70208100
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center