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Rainfall-Infiltration-Runoff Processes for Soil Affected by Wildfire: Brian A. Ebel
Project Title: Rainfall-Infiltration-Runoff Processes for Soil Affected by Wildfire
Mendenhall Fellow: Brian A. Ebel, (303) 541-3022,
Duty Station: Boulder, CO
Start Date: March 29, 2010
Education: Ph.D. (Hydrogeology), Stanford University, 2007
Research Advisors: John Moody, (303)-541-3011,; Deborah Martin, (303)-541-3024,; Roger Smith,
  Brian A. Ebel

Project Description: The rate at which rainfall is able to infiltrate into the soil after wildfires controls the amount and timing of runoff from hillslopes.  In areas recently burned by wildfire, increased runoff from hillslopes can lead to destructive floods and debris flows that endanger human lives and the built environment.  The prevailing conceptual models of runoff generation from burned hillslopes rely primarily on fire-enhanced water repellency. While repellency can be important, thresholds exist in the continuum of soil-water conditions and surface cover (that is, ash and vegetation) where other processes dominate runoff production. Additionally, the importance of connectivity of runoff source areas at the hillslope scale for generation of runoff at the watershed scale has emerged in recent studies.

This project seeks to identify these state thresholds and patterns of connectivity by quantifying the state variables and infiltration processes of ash and soils immediately after high-severity wildfires in different physiographic settings. The evolution of these variables and processes with increasing time after wildfire will shed light on when burned areas are most vulnerable to catastrophic events as well as the timescale of soil-water recovery from fire. Measurements of matric potential, soil-water content, dye movement, and runoff coupled to surveys of material and hydraulic properties of soil and ash will elucidate the hydrologic response to rainfall at the hillslope scale. This effort will be one of the few post-wildfire studies to conduct unsaturated zone characterization.  Numerical simulation of hydrologic processes, parameterized and evaluated using the field measurements, will clarify the essential factors governing runoff production and identify active processes that are not captured by the current soil-physics paradigms embodied in the hydrologic model. The study area for this work will include Southern California and the Mountain West regions of the United States.

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Last modified: 16:08:27 Thu 13 Dec 2012