Linking hydraulic properties of fire-affected soils to infiltration and water repellency

Journal of Hydrology
By: , and 



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(θi), as a function of initial soil moisture content, θi, ranging from extremely dry conditions (θi < 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(θi).

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(θi) could be represented by an empirical non-linear function of θi 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(θi) 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(θi) 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

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Linking hydraulic properties of fire-affected soils to infiltration and water repellency
Series title Journal of Hydrology
DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.10.015
Volume 379
Issue 3-4
Year Published 2009
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Central Branch
Description 13 p.
First page 291
Last page 303
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