Runoff-initiated post-fire debris flow Western Cascades, Oregon

Abstract

Wildfires dramatically alter the hydraulics and root reinforcement of soil on forested hillslopes, which can promote the generation of debris flows. In the Pacific Northwest, post-fire shallow landsliding has been well documented and studied, but the potential role of runoff-initiated debris flows is not well understood and only one previous to 2018 had been documented in the region. On 20 June 2018, approximately 1 year after the Milli fire burned 24,000 acres, a runoff-initiated debris flow occurred on the flanks of Black Crater in the Oregon Cascade Range. The debris flow was initiated via dispersed rilling on > 30-degree slopes near the crater rim and traveled > 1.5 km downslope. We measured exceptionally low soil infiltration rates at the study site, likely due to high burn severity during the Milli fire. Based on nearby 5-min rain gage data, we quantified rainfall rates for the storm event that triggered the debris flow. Our results show that peak 15-min rainfall rates were 25.4 mmh−1, equaling or exceeding the measured infiltration rates at the study site, which had a geometric mean of ~ 24 mmh−1. Field mapping shows that high burn severity resulted in the initiation of the debris flow and that convergent and steep topography promoted the development of a debris flow at this site. As wildfires increase in frequency and intensity across the western USA, the Pacific Northwest could become more susceptible to runoff-initiated debris flows. Therefore, characterization of the conditions that resulted in this debris flow is crucial for understanding how runoff-initiated debris flows may shape terrain and impact hazards in the Pacific Northwest.

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Acknowledgments

This research has been supported by the Kolenkow-Reitz Fellowship through Carleton College. We thank the editors for their insight and helpful comments on the manuscript. Reviews by Mary Savina throughout the process were very constructive and greatly appreciated. We also thank members of the University of Oregon Earth Surface Processes Lab for their invaluable contributions to the fieldwork. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Data will be made available in the University of Oregon Scholar’s Bank.

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Correspondence to S. A. Wall.

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Wall, S.A., Roering, J.J. & Rengers, F.K. Runoff-initiated post-fire debris flow Western Cascades, Oregon. Landslides 17, 1649–1661 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10346-020-01376-9

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Keywords

  • Post-fire debris flow
  • Post-fire runoff
  • Wildfire
  • Oregon Cascades
  • Soil infiltration
  • Climate change