Hydrologic conditions controlling runoff generation immediately after wildfire

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Abstract

[1] We investigated the control of postwildfire runoff by physical and hydraulic properties of soil, hydrologic states, and an ash layer immediately following wildfire. The field site is within the area burned by the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Colorado, USA. Physical and hydraulic property characterization included ash thickness, particle size distribution, hydraulic conductivity, and soil water retention curves. Soil water content and matric potential were measured indirectly at several depths below the soil surface to document hydrologic states underneath the ash layer in the unsaturated zone, whereas precipitation and surface runoff were measured directly. Measurements of soil water content showed that almost no water infiltrated below the ash layer into the near-surface soil in the burned site at the storm time scale (i.e., minutes to hours). Runoff generation processes were controlled by and highly sensitive to ash thickness and ash hydraulic properties. The ash layer stored from 97% to 99% of rainfall, which was critical for reducing runoff amounts. The hydrologic response to two rain storms with different rainfall amounts, rainfall intensity, and durations, only ten days apart, indicated that runoff generation was predominantly by the saturation-excess mechanism perched at the ash-soil interface during the first storm and predominantly by the infiltration-excess mechanism at the ash surface during the second storm. Contributing area was not static for the two storms and was 4% (saturation excess) to 68% (infiltration excess) of the catchment area. Our results showed the importance of including hydrologic conditions and hydraulic properties of the ash layer in postwildfire runoff generation models.

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