Post-fire stream channel processes: Changes in runoff rates, sediment delivery across spatial scales, and mitigation effectiveness
Wagenbrenner, Joseph W.
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Wildfires dramatically affect hydrologic processes including runoff and erosion, which in turn can impact society. Disturbance by fire creates ecosystem heterogeneity, prompting many species to adapt to fire cycles. Human impacts have altered fire frequency and affected natural systems to the point that additional landscape-scale disturbances may cause a disruption in ecosystem form and function. The altered ecosystems and increased development in forests may exacerbate post-fire impacts, affecting more of the population in fire-prone regions. The following three studies will improve our understanding and management of post-fire impacts on stream channel processes. A catchment in eastern Arizona where runoff data were collected between 1962 and 1983 was subsequently burned by a wildfire in 2011. The direct comparison of pre and post-fire runoff showed that the fire made runoff more rapid, increased peak discharge rates, and compressed the time scale of storm hydrographs. These results can help improve post-fire runoff modeling and management efforts.The second topic addressed the scaling of sediment delivery across hillslope and small catchment scales. Erosion data used in this study were from the Arizona site and five other sites across the western US. Results from five of the six sites showed that sediment delivery significantly decreased with increasing spatial extent, while the lack of trend at the sixth site illustrates the variability in erosion responses across ecosystems. The relationships developed in this study will help improve estimates of sediment delivery rates at the small-catchment scale using more easily acquired data from small plots. The third study addressed whether straw bale check dams reduce post-fire sediment yields or affect ephemeral stream channel morphology. A series of laboratory flume experiments based on measured post-fire field conditions showed that check dams can store sediment from initial runoff events, but that a large number of check dams would be needed to reduce post-fire sediment yields. The stored sediment reduced the local channel gradient, but the check dams did not otherwise affect the channel morphology. These data and field observations were used to develop a check dam classification system that can be applied in ephemeral streams in burned or unburned areas.