Post-fire runoff and erosion from rainfall simulation: Contrasting forests with shrublands and grasslands

Mathew P. Johansen, Thomas E. Hakonson, David D. Breshears

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

224 Scopus citations


Rainfall simulations allow for controlled comparisons of runoff and erosion among ecosystems and land cover conditions. Runoff and erosion can increase greatly following fire, yet there are few rainfall simulation studies for post-fire plots, particularly after severe fire in semiarid forest. We conducted rainfall simulations shortly after a severe fire (Cerro Grande) in ponderosa pine forest near Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA, which completely burned organic ground cover and exposed unprotected soil. Measurements on burned plots showed 74% of mineral soil was exposed compared with an estimated 3% exposed prior to the fire. Most of the remaining 26% surface area was covered by easily moveable ash. Rainfall was applied at 60 mm h-1 in three repeated tests over 2 days. Runoff from burned plots was about 45% of the total 120 mm of applied precipitation, but only 23% on the unburned plots. The most striking difference between the response of burned and unburned plots was the amount of sediment production; burned plots generated 25 times more sediment than unburned plots (76 kg ha-1 and 3 kg ha-1 respectively per millimetre of rain). Sediment yields were well correlated with percentage bare soil (r = 0.84). These sediment yields were more than an order of magnitude greater than nearly all comparable rainfall simulation studies conducted on burned plots in the USA, most of which have been in grasslands or shrublands. A synthesis of comparable studies suggests that an erosion threshold is reached as the amount of soil exposed by fire increases to 60-70%. Our results provide sediment yield and runoff data from severely burned surfaces, a condition for which little rainfall simulation data exist. Further, our results contrast post-fire hydrologic responses in forests with those in grasslands and shrublands. These results can be applied to problems concerning post-fire erosion, flooding, contaminant transport, and development of associated remediation strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2953-2965
Number of pages13
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number15
StatePublished - Oct 30 2001


  • Erosion
  • Fire
  • Hydrologic response
  • Runoff
  • Sediment transport
  • Surficial processes
  • Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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