Landscapes following wildfire commonly have significant increases in sediment yield and debris flows that pose major hazards and are difficult to predict. Ultimately, post-wildfire sediment yield is governed by processes that deliver sediment from hillslopes to channels, but it is commonly unclear the degree to which hillslope sediment delivery is driven by wet versus dry processes, which limits the ability to predict debris-flow occurrence and response to climate change. Here we use repeat airborne lidar topography to track sediment movement following the 2009 CE Station Fire in southern California, USA, and show that post-wildfire debris flows initiated in channels filled by dry sediment transport, rather than on hillsides during rainfall as typically assumed. We found widespread patterns of 1–3 m of dry sediment loading in headwater channels immediately following wildfire and before rainfall, followed by sediment excavation during subsequent storms. In catchments where post-wildfire dry sediment loading was absent, possibly due to differences in lithology, channel scour during storms did not occur. Our results support a fire-flood model in bedrock landscapes whereby debris-flow occurrence depends on dry sediment loading rather than hillslope-runoff erosion, shallow landslides, or burn severity, indicating that sediment supply can limit debris-flow occurrence in bedrock landscapes with more-frequent fires.

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