Abstract

Wildfire is one of the most significant disturbances in mountainous landscapes, affecting water supply and ecologic function and setting the stage for natural hazards such as flash floods. The impacts of wildfire can affect the entire hydrologic cycle. Measurements of soil-water content and matric potential in the near surface (top 30 cm) captured the hydrologic state in both burned and unburned hillslopes during the first spring through fall period (1 June–1 Oct. 2011) after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, CO. This time span included different hydrologic periods characterized by cyclonic frontal storms (low-intensity, long duration), convective storms (high-intensity, short duration), and dry periods. In mountainous environments, aspect can also control hydrologic states, so north- vs. south-facing slopes were compared. Wildfire tended to homogenize soil-water contents across aspects and with depth in the soil, yet it also may have introduced an aspect control on matric potential that was not observed in unburned soils. Post-wildfire changes in hydrologic state were observed in south-facing soils, probably reflecting decreased soil-water retention after wildfire. North-facing soils were impacted the most, in terms of hydrologic state, by the loss of water storage in the combusted litter–duff layer and forest canopy, which had provided a large “hydrologic buffering” capacity when unburned. Unsaturated zone measurements showed increased variability in hydrologic states and more rapid state transitions in wildfire-impacted soils. A simple, qualitative analysis suggested that the range of unsaturated-zone processes along the gravity–capillarity–adsorption continuum was expanded by wildfire for a given soil. The small number of experimental plots in this study suggests that further work is needed before these conclusions can be generalized to other geographic areas.

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