Burn severity influences on post-fire recovery of soil-hydraulic properties controlling runoff generation are poorly understood despite the importance for parameterizing infiltration models. We measured soil-hydraulic properties of field-saturated hydraulic conductivity (Kfs), sorptivity (S), and wetting front potential (ψf) for four years after the 2013 Black Forest Fire, Colorado, USA at six sites across a gradient of initial remotely sensed burn severity using the change in the normalized burn ratio (dNBR). These measurements were correlated with soil-physical property measurements of bulk density (ρb), loss on ignition (LOI, a measure of soil organic matter), and ground cover composition to provide insight into causal factors for temporal changes in Kfs, S, and ψf . Modeled infiltration using the Smith-Parlange approach parameterized with measured Kfs, S, and ψf further discerned the role of precipitation intensity on runoff generation.
Temporal trends of soil-physical properties and ground cover showed influences from initial burn severity. Trends in soil-hydraulic properties , surprisingly, were not strongly influenced by initial burn severity despite inferred effects of ρb, LOI, and ground cover on trends in Kfs and S. Calculations of dNBR at the time of sampling showed strong correlations with Kfs and S, demonstrating a new approach for estimating long-unburned Kfs and S values, infiltration model parameters after fire, and assessing the time of return to pre-fire values. Simulated infiltration-excess runoff, in contrast, did depend on initial burn severity. Time series of the ratio S2/Kfs ≈ ψf tended to converge between 1 to 10 mm four years after wildfire, potentially (i) defining a long-unburned forest domain of S2/Kfs and ψf from 1 to 10 mm with relatively high Kfs values, and (ii) providing a new post-fire soil-hydraulic property recovery metric (i.e. S2/Kfs ≈ ψf in the range of 1 to 10 mm) for sites in the Rocky Mountains of the USA.