Extreme floods often follow wildfire in mountainous watersheds. However, a quantitative relation between the runoff response and burn severity at the watershed scale has not been established. Runoff response was measured as the runoff coefficient C, which is equal to the peak discharge per unit drainage area divided by the average maximum 30 min rainfall intensity during each rain storm. The magnitude of the burn severity was expressed as the change in the normalized burn ratio. A new burn severity variable, hydraulic functional connectivity Φ was developed and incorporates both the magnitude of the burn severity and the spatial sequence of the burn severity along hillslope flow paths. The runoff response and the burn severity were measured in seven subwatersheds (0·24 to 0·85 km2) in the upper part of Rendija Canyon burned by the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA.
A rainfall–discharge relation was determined for four of the subwatersheds with nearly the same burn severity. The peak discharge per unit drainage area was a linear function of the maximum 30 min rainfall intensity I30. This function predicted a rainfall intensity threshold of 8·5 mm h−1 below which no runoff was generated. The runoff coefficient was a linear function of the mean hydraulic functional connectivity of the subwatersheds. Moreover, the variability of the mean hydraulic functional connectivity was related to the variability of the mean runoff coefficient, and this relation provides physical insight into why the runoff response from the same subwatershed can vary for different rainstorms with the same rainfall intensity. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.