Submitted to: Trans American Geophysical Union
Publication Type: Abstract Only
Publication Acceptance Date: September 16, 2011
Publication Date: December 5, 2011
Citation: Williams, C.J., Pierson, F.B., Robichaud, P.R., Boll, J., and Al-Hamdan, O.Z. 2011. Hydrologic Impacts Associated with the Increased Role of Wildland Fire Across the Rangeland-Xeric Forest Continuum of the Great Basin and Intermountain West, USA. Abstract H31B-1157. Presented at the 2011 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, December 5-9, 2011, San Francisco, CA. Technical Abstract: The increased role of wildland fire across the rangeland-xeric forest continuum in the western United States (US) presents landscape-scale consequences relative runoff and erosion. Concomitant climate conditions and altered plant community transitions in recent decades along grassland-shrubland-woodland-xeric forest transitions have promoted frequent and large wildland fires, and the continuance of the trend appears likely if current or warming climate conditions prevail. Much of the Great Basin and Intermountain West in the US now exists in a state in which rangeland and woodland wildfires stimulated by invasive cheatgrass and dense, horizontal and vertical fuel layers have a greater likelihood of progressing upslope into xeric forests. Drier moisture conditions and warmer seasonal air temperatures, along with dense fuel loads, have lengthened fire seasons and facilitated an increase in the frequency, severity and area burned in mid-elevation western US forests. These changes potentially increase the overall hydrologic vulnerability across the rangeland-xeric forest continuum by spatially and temporally increasing soil surface exposure to runoff and erosion processes. Plot-to-hillslope scale studies demonstrate burning may increase event runoff and/or erosion by factors of 2-40 over small-plots scales and more than 100-fold over large-plot to hillslope scales. Anecdotal reports of large-scale flooding and debris-flow events from rangelands and xeric forests following burning document the potential risk to resources (soil loss, water quality, degraded aquatic habitat, etc.), property and infrastructure, and human life. Such risks are particularly concerning for urban centers near the urban-wildland interface. We do not yet know the long-term ramifications of frequent soil loss associated with commonly occurring runoff events on repeatedly burned sites. However, plot to landscape-scale post-fire erosion rate estimates suggest potential losses of biologically important surface soils may be critically damaging for rangelands given inherent slow soil formation rates. This study presents a summary of fire effects on runoff and erosion across the rangeland-xeric forest continuum of the western US and highlights how that knowledge addresses post-fire hydrologic modeling needs. Further, we present a conceptual framework for advancing post-fire hydrologic vulnerability assessment and identify key areas for future research.