Heat from wildfires can produce a two-layer system composed of extremely dry soil covered by a layer of ash, which when subjected to rainfall, may produce extreme floods. To understand the soil physics controlling runoff for these initial conditions, we used a small, portable disk infiltrometer to measure two hydraulic properties: (1) near-saturated hydraulic conductivity, Kf and (2) sorptivity, S(??i), as a function of initial soil moisture content, ??i, ranging from extremely dry conditions (??i < 0.02 cm3 cm-3) to near saturation. In the field and in the laboratory replicate measurements were made of ash, reference soils, soils unaffected by fire, and fire-affected soils. Each has a different degrees of water repellency that influences Kf and S(??i). Values of Kf ranged from 4.5 ?? 10-3 to 53 ?? 10-3 cm s-1 for ash; from 0.93 ?? 10-3 to 130 ?? 10-3 cm s-1 for reference soils; and from 0.86 ?? 10-3 to 3.0 ?? 10-3 cm s-1, for soil unaffected by fire, which had the lowest values of Kf. Measurements indicated that S(??i) could be represented by an empirical non-linear function of ??i with a sorptivity maximum of 0.18-0.20 cm s-0.5, between 0.03 and 0.08 cm3 cm-3. This functional form differs from the monotonically decreasing non-linear functions often used to represent S(??i) for rainfall-runoff modeling. The sorptivity maximum may represent the combined effects of gravity, capillarity, and adsorption in a transitional domain corresponding to extremely dry soil, and moreover, it may explain the observed non-linear behavior, and the critical soil-moisture threshold of water repellent soils. Laboratory measurements of Kf and S(??i) are the first for ash and fire-affected soil, but additional measurements are needed of these hydraulic properties for in situ fire-affected soils. They provide insight into water repellency behavior and infiltration under extremely dry conditions. Most importantly, they indicate how existing rainfall-runoff models can be modified to accommodate a possible two-layer system in extremely dry conditions. These modified models can be used to predict floods from burned watersheds under these initial conditions.
Additional publication details
Linking hydraulic properties of fire-affected soils to infiltration and water repellency