Debris-flow experiments and models commonly use “hot-start” initial conditions in which downslope motion begins when a large force imbalance is abruptly imposed. By contrast, initiation of natural debris flows almost invariably results from small perturbations of static force balances that apply to debris masses poised in steep channels or on steep slopes. Models that neglect these static balances may violate physical law. Here we assess how the effects of hot starts are manifested in physical experiments, analytical dam-break models, and numerical models in which frictional resistance is too small to satisfy static force balances in debris-flow source areas. We then outline a numerical modeling framework that avoids use of hot starts. In this framework an initial static force balance is gradually perturbed by increasing pore-fluid pressure that may trigger the onset of debris motion. Subsequent increases in pore-fluid pressure, driven by debris motion, may then reduce the debris frictional strength, leading to high flow mobility.