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Impacts of successive wildfire on soil hydraulic properties: implications for debris flow hazards and system resilience

Author(s): Luke A. McGuire, Ann M. Youberg
Year Published: 2019

Climate and land use changes have led to recent increases in fire size, severity, and/or frequency in many different geographic regions and ecozones. Most post‐wildfire geomorphology studies focus on the impact of a single wildfire but changing wildfire regimes underscore the need to quantify the effects of repeated disturbance by wildfire and the subsequent impacts on system resilience. Here, we examine the impact of two successive wildfires on soil hydraulic properties and debris flow hazards. The 2004 Nuttall‐Gibson Complex and the 2017 Frye Fire affected large portions of the Pinaleño Mountains in southern Arizona, creating a mosaic of burn severity patterns that allowed us to quantify differences in wildfire‐induced hydrologic changes as a function of burn severity and recent fire history (i.e. burned in only the Frye Fire or burned in both fires). Field observations after the 2017 Frye Fire indicated debris flow activity in areas burned predominantly at low severity. Many of these areas, however, were also affected by the 2004 Nuttall‐Gibson Complex, suggesting that the relatively short recovery time between the two wildfires may have played a role in the geomorphic response to the most recent wildfire. Field measurements of soil hydraulic properties suggest that soils burned at moderate severity in 2004 and low severity in 2017 have a lower infiltration capacity relative to those that remained unburned in 2004 and burned at low severity in 2017. Simulations of runoff demonstrate that measured differences in infiltration capacity between once‐ and twice‐burned soils are sufficient in some cases to influence the rainfall intensities needed to initiate runoff generated debris flows. Results quantify the impact of wildfire history and burn severity on runoff and debris flow activity in a landscape affected by successive wildfires and provide insight into how the resilience of geomorphic systems may be affected by successive wildfires.

Citation: McGuire, Luke A.; Youberg, Ann M. 2019. Impacts of successive wildfire on soil hydraulic properties: implications for debris flow hazards and system resilience. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 44(11):2236-2250. https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.4632
Topic(s): Fire Regime, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Post-fire Management, Post-fire Rehabilitation, Erosion Control, Recovery after fire, Resilience
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 20177
FRAMES RCS number: 57900
Record updated: Oct 21, 2019