Extreme Precipitation Across Adjacent Burned and Unburned Watersheds Reveals Impacts of Low Severity Wildfire on Debris-Flow Processes

Luke A. McGuire, Ann M. Youberg, Francis K. Rengers, Nathan S. Abramson, Indujaa Ganesh, Alexander N. Gorr, Olivia Hoch, Justin C. Johnson, Patt Lamom, Alexander B. Prescott, Jessica Zanetell, Brendan Fenerty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


In steep landscapes, wildfire-induced changes to soil and vegetation can lead to extreme and hazardous geomorphic responses, including debris flows. The wildfire-induced mechanisms that lead to heightened geomorphic responses, however, depend on many site-specific factors including regional climate, vegetation, soil texture, and soil burn severity. As climate and land use change drive changes in fire regime, there is an increasing need to understand how fire alters geomorphic responses, particularly in areas where fire has been historically infrequent. Here, we examine differences in the initiation, magnitude, and particle-size distribution of debris flows that initiated within the area burned by the 2019 Woodbury Fire in central Arizona, USA, and those that initiated in a nearby unburned area. Despite similar rainfall intensities, unburned watersheds were less likely to produce debris flows. Debris flows in unburned areas initiated from both runoff and shallow landslides, while debris flows only initiated from runoff-related processes in the burned area. The grain-size distribution making up the matrix of debris-flow deposits within the burned area generally had a lower ratio of sand to silt relative to debris flows that initiated in the unburned area, though there were no systematic differences in the coarse fraction of debris-flow sediment between burned and unburned areas. Results help expand our ability to predict postwildfire debris-flow activity in a wider range of settings, specifically the Sonoran Desert ecoregion, and provide general insight into the impact of wildfire on geomorphic processes in steep terrain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020JF005997
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • debris flow
  • fire
  • grain size
  • initiation
  • landslide
  • volume

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geophysics


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