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Wildfire impacts on the processes that generate debris flows in burned watersheds

January 1, 2012

Every year, and in many countries worldwide, wildfires cause significant damage and economic losses due to both the direct effects of the fires and the subsequent accelerated runoff, erosion, and debris flow. Wildfires can have profound effects on the hydrologic response of watersheds by changing the infiltration characteristics and erodibility of the soil, which leads to decreased rainfall infiltration, significantly increased overland flow and runoff in channels, and movement of soil. Debris-flow activity is among the most destructive consequences of these changes, often causing extensive damage to human infrastructure. Data from the Mediterranean area and Western United States of America help identify the primary processes that result in debris flows in recently burned areas. Two primary processes for the initiation of fire-related debris flows have been so far identified: (1) runoff-dominated erosion by surface overland flow; and (2) infiltration-triggered failure and mobilization of a discrete landslide mass. The first process is frequently documented immediately post-fire and leads to the generation of debris flows through progressive bulking of storm runoff with sediment eroded from the hillslopes and channels. As sediment is incorporated into water, runoff can convert to debris flow. The conversion to debris flow may be observed at a position within a drainage network that appears to be controlled by threshold values of upslope contributing area and its gradient. At these locations, sufficient eroded material has been incorporated, relative to the volume of contributing surface runoff, to generate debris flows. Debris flows have also been generated from burned basins in response to increased runoff by water cascading over a steep, bedrock cliff, and incorporating material from readily erodible colluvium or channel bed. Post-fire debris flows have also been generated by infiltration-triggered landslide failures which then mobilize into debris flows. However, only 12% of documented cases exhibited this process. When they do occur, the landslide failures range in thickness from a few tens of centimeters to more than 6 m, and generally involve the soil and colluvium-mantled hillslopes. Surficial landslide failures in burned areas most frequently occur in response to prolonged periods of storm rainfall, or prolonged rainfall in combination with rapid snowmelt or rain-on-snow events.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2012
Title Wildfire impacts on the processes that generate debris flows in burned watersheds
DOI 10.1007/s11069-011-9769-9
Authors M. Parise, Susan H. Cannon
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Natural Hazards
Index ID 70032254
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center