Characteristics of debris flow prone watersheds and triggering rainstorms following the Tadpole Fire, New Mexico, USA
Abstract. Moderate and high severity fires promote increases in runoff and erosion, leading to a greater likelihood of extreme geomorphic responses, including debris flows. In the first several years following fire, the majority of debris flows initiate when runoff rapidly entrains sediment on steep slopes. From a hazard perspective, it is important to be able to anticipate when and where watershed responses will be dominated by debris flows rather than flood flows. Rainfall intensity averaged over a 15-minute duration, I15, in particular, has been identified as a key predictor of debris flow likelihood. Developing effective warning systems and predictive models for post-fire debris flow hazards therefore relies on high-temporal resolution rainfall data at the time debris flows initiate. In this study, we documented the geomorphic response of a series of watersheds following a wildfire in western New Mexico, USA, with an emphasis on constraining debris flow timing within rainstorms to better characterize debris flow-triggering rainfall intensities. We estimated temporal changes in soil hydraulic properties and ground cover in areas burned at different severities over 2+ years to offer explanations for observed differences in spatial and temporal patterns in debris flow activity. We observed 16 debris flows, all of which initiated during the first several months following the fire. The average recurrence interval of the debris flow-triggering I15 is 1.3 years, which highlights the susceptibility of recently burned watersheds to runoff-generated debris flows in this region. All but one of the debris flows initiated in watersheds burned primarily at moderate or high soil burn severity. Since soil hydraulic properties appeared to be relatively resilient to burning, we attribute reduced debris flow activity at later times to decreases in the fraction of bare ground. Results provide additional constraints on the rainfall characteristics that promote post-fire debris flow initiation in a region where fire size and severity have been increasing.
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