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Time since burning and rainfall characteristics impact post-fire debris flow initiation and magnitude

February 1, 2021

The extreme heat from wildfire alters soil properties and incinerates vegetation, leading to changes in infiltration capacity, ground cover, soil erodibility, and rainfall interception. These changes promote elevated rates of runoff and sediment transport that increase the likelihood of runoff-generated debris flows. Debris flows are most common in the year immediately following wildfire, but temporal changes in the likelihood and magnitude of debris flows following wildfire are not well constrained. In this study, we combine measurements of soil-hydraulic properties with vegetation survey data and numerical modeling to understand how debris-flow threats are likely to change in steep, burned watersheds during the first 3 years of recovery. We focus on documenting recovery following the 2016 Fish Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, California, and demonstrate how a numerical model can be used to predict temporal changes in debris-flow properties and initiation thresholds. Numerical modeling suggests that the 15-minute intensity-duration (ID) threshold for debris flows in post-fire year 1 can vary from 15 to 30 mm/hr, depending on how rainfall is temporally distributed within a storm. Simulations further demonstrate that expected debris-flow volumes would be reduced by more than a factor of three following 1 year of recovery and that the 15-minute rainfall ID threshold would increase from 15 to 30 mm/hr to greater than 60 mm/hr by post-fire year 3. These results provide constraints on debris-flow thresholds within the San Gabriel Mountains and highlight the importance of considering local rainfall characteristics when using numerical models to assess debris-flow and flood potential.

Publication Year 2021
Title Time since burning and rainfall characteristics impact post-fire debris flow initiation and magnitude
DOI 10.2113/EEG-D-20-00029
Authors Luke A. McGuire, Francis K. Rengers, Nina S. Oakley, Jason W. Kean, Dennis M. Staley, Hui Tang, Marian de Orla-Barile, Ann M. Youberg
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Engineering and Geology
Index ID 70222491
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center