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Potential postwildfire debris-flow hazards—A prewildfire evaluation for the Jemez Mountains, north-central New Mexico

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5101

Prepared in cooperation with the Buckman Direct Diversion Board, U.S. Forest Service, Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Los Alamos County
By:
and
DOI:10.3133/sir20165101

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Abstract

Wildfire can substantially increase the probability of debris flows, a potentially hazardous and destructive form of mass wasting, in landscapes that have otherwise been stable throughout recent history. Although the exact location, extent, and severity of wildfire or subsequent rainfall intensity and duration cannot be known, probabilities of fire and debris‑flow occurrence for given locations can be estimated with geospatial analysis and modeling. The purpose of this report is to provide information on which watersheds might constitute the most serious potential debris-flow hazards in the event of a large-scale wildfire and subsequent rainfall in the Jemez Mountains. Potential probabilities and estimated volumes of postwildfire debris flows in both the unburned and previously burned areas of the Jemez Mountains and surrounding areas were estimated using empirical debris-flow models developed by the U.S. Geological Survey in combination with fire behavior and burn probability models developed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Of the 4,998 subbasins modeled for this study, computed debris-flow probabilities in 671 subbasins were greater than 80 percent in response to the 100-year recurrence interval, 30-minute duration rainfall event. These subbasins ranged in size from 0.01 to 6.57 square kilometers (km2), with an average area of 0.29 km2, and were mostly steep, upstream tributaries to larger channels in the area. Modeled debris-flow volumes in 465 subbasins were greater than 10,000 cubic meters (m3), and 14 of those subbasins had modeled debris‑flow volumes greater than 100,000 m3.

The rankings of integrated relative debris-flow hazard indexes for each subbasin were generated by multiplying the individual subbasin values for debris-flow volume, debris‑flow probability, and average burn probability. The subbasins with integrated hazard index values in the top 2 percent typically are large, upland tributaries to canyons and channels primarily in the Upper Rio Grande and Rio Grande-Santa Fe watershed areas. No subbasins in this group have basin areas less than 1.0 km2. Many of these areas already had significant mass‑wasting episodes following the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. Other subbasins with integrated hazard index values in the top 2 percent are scattered throughout the Jemez River watershed area, including some subbasins in the interior of the Valles Caldera. Only a few subbasins in the top integrated hazard index group are in the Rio Chama watershed area.

This prewildfire assessment approach is valuable to resource managers because the analysis of the debris-flow threat is made before a wildfire occurs, which facilitates prewildfire management, planning, and mitigation. In north‑central New Mexico, widespread watershed restoration efforts are being done to safeguard vital watersheds against the threat of catastrophic wildfire. This study was designed to help select ideal locations for the restoration efforts that could have the best return on investment.

Suggested Citation

Tillery, A.C., and Haas, J.R., 2016, Potential postwildfire debris-flow hazards—A prewildfire evaluation for the Jemez Mountains, north-central New Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific-Investigations Report 2016-5101, 27 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/sir20165101.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods and Approach
  • Modeling Results
  • Potential Postwildfire Debris-Flow Hazards
  • Integrated Relative Debris-Flow Hazard Index Rankings
  • Limitations of Debris-Flow Hazard Assessment
  • Future Considerations for Prewildfire Assessments of Postwildfire Hazards
  • Implications for Burn-Severity Mitigation Measures in the Jemez Mountains
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Potential postwildfire debris-flow hazards—A prewildfire evaluation for the Jemez Mountains, north-central New Mexico
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
2016-5101
DOI:
10.3133/sir20165101
Year Published:
2016
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
New Mexico Water Science Center
Description:
Report: vi, 27 p.; Interactive Map; GIS Files
Country:
United States
State:
New Mexico
Other Geospatial:
Jemez Mountains
Online Only (Y/N):
Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N):
Y