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Empirical models to predict the volumes of debris flows generated by recently burned basins in the western U.S.

Author(s): J. E. Gartner, Susan H. Cannon, Paul M. Santi, Victor G. Dewolfe
Year Published: 2008

Recently burned basins frequently produce debris flows in response to moderate-to-severe rainfall. Post-fire hazard assessments of debris flows are most useful when they predict the volume of material that may flow out of a burned basin. This study develops a set of empirically-based models that predict potential volumes of wildfire-related debris flows in different regions and geologic settings.

The models were developed using data from 53 recently burned basins in Colorado, Utah and California. The volumes of debris flows in these basins were determined by either measuring the volume of material eroded from the channels, or by estimating the amount of material removed from debris retention basins. For each basin, independent variables thought to affect the volume of the debris flow were determined. These variables include measures of basin morphology, basin areas burned at different severities, soil material properties, rock type, and rainfall amounts and intensities for storms triggering debris flows. Using these data, multiple regression analyses were used to create separate predictive models for volumes of debris flows generated by burned basins in six separate regions or settings, including the western U.S., southern California, the Rocky Mountain region, and basins underlain by sedimentary, metamorphic and granitic rocks.

An evaluation of these models indicated that the best model (the Western U.S. model) explains 83% of the variability in the volumes of the debris flows, and includes variables that describe the basin area with slopes greater than or equal to 30%, the basin area burned at moderate and high severity, and total storm rainfall. This model was independently validated by comparing volumes of debris flows reported in the literature, to volumes estimated using the model. Eighty-seven percent of the reported volumes were within two residual standard errors of the volumes predicted using the model. This model is an improvement over previous models in that it includes a measure of burn severity and an estimate of modeling errors. The application of this model, in conjunction with models for the probability of debris flows, will enable more complete and rapid assessments of debris flow hazards following wildfire.

Citation: Gartner JE, Cannon SH, Santi PM, Dewolfe VG, 2008. Empirical models to predict the volumes of debris flows generated by recently burned basins in the western U.S. Geomorphology 96 (3–4), pages 339-354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geomorph.2007.02.033.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Soils
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
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NRFSN number: 15742
Record updated: Nov 16, 2017