CSDMS 2022: Environmental Extremes and Earthscape Evolution

Modeling the transient effects of fire on runoff and erosion: Implications for debris-flow hazards

Luke McGuire

University of Arizona, United States

Fire temporarily alters soil and vegetation properties, driving increases in runoff and erosion that can dramatically increase the likelihood of debris flows. In the immediate aftermath of fire, debris flows most often initiate when surface water runoff rapidly erodes sediment on steep slopes. Due to the complex interactions between runoff generation, sediment transport, and post-fire debris-flow initiation and growth, models that couple these processes can provide valuable insights into the ways in which topography, burn severity, and post-fire recovery influence debris-flow activity. Here, we describe such a model as well as attempts to parameterize temporal changes in model parameters throughout the post-fire recovery process. Simulations of watershed-scale response to individual rainstorms in several southern California burned areas suggest substantial reductions in debris-flow likelihood and volume within the first 1-2 years following fire. Results highlight the importance of considering local rainfall characteristics and sediment supply when using process-based numerical models to assess debris-flow potential. More generally, results provide a methodology for estimating the intensity and duration of rainfall associated with the initiation of runoff-generated debris flows as well as insights into the persistence of debris-flow hazards following fire.

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Of interest for:
  • Terrestrial Working Group
  • Hydrology Focus Research Group