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ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Boise, Idaho » Northwest Watershed Research Center » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #204972

Title: Fire effects on rangeland hydrology and erosion in a steep sagebrush-dominated landscape

item Pierson Jr, Frederick
item Moffet, Corey
item Hardegree, Stuart
item Clark, Pat
item Williams, Christopher - Jason

Submitted to: Hydrological Processes
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 9/2/2007
Publication Date: 1/1/2008
Citation: Pierson, F.B., Robichaud, P.R., Moffet, C.A., Spaeth, K.E., Hardegree, S.P., Clark, P.E., and Williams, C.J. 2008. Fire Effects on Rangeland Hydrology and Erosion in a Steep Sagebrush-Dominated Landscape. Hydrological Processes: 22, 2916-2929.

Interpretive Summary: Fire is a natural component and major management issue on sagebrush rangelands, yet the impacts of fire on rangeland hydrology and erosion are poorly understood. In this study, we applied artificial rainfall and overland flow to burned and unburned sagebrush rangelands to quantify runoff, infiltration, and erosion over a three year period. Wildfire reduced groundcover to 1.4% and decreased infiltration and storage of water at the surface. The greatest impact of wildfire was on the dynamics of flow over the land surface. Removal of vegetation by fire allowed overland flow to concentrate into rills where runoff and erosion were increased. The impacts of wildfire on runoff generation and sediment yield were greatly reduced three years post-fire. The study provides a relative measure of the increased risk of runoff and erosion and the rate of hydrologic recovery following fire on steeply sloped sagebrush-dominated rangelands.

Technical Abstract: Post-fire runoff and erosion from wildlands has been well researched, but few studies have researched the degree of control exerted by fire on rangeland hydrology and erosion processes. Furthermore, the spatial continuity and temporal persistence of wildfire impacts on rangeland hydrology and erosion are not well understood. Small-plot rainfall and concentrated flow simulations were applied to unburned and severely burned hillslopes to determine the spatial continuity and persistence of fire-induced impacts on runoff and erosion by interrill and rill processes on steep sagebrush-dominated sites. Runoff and erosion were measured immediately following and each of 3 years post-wildfire. Spatial and temporal variability in post-fire hydrologic and erosional responses were compared with runoff and erosion measured under unburned conditions. Results from interrill simulations indicate fire-induced impacts were predominantly on coppice microsites and that fire influenced interrill sediment yield more than runoff. Interrill runoff was nearly unchanged by burning, but 3-year cumulative interrill sediment yield on burned hillslopes (50 g m-2) was twice that of unburned hillslopes (25 g m-2). The greatest impact of fire was on the dynamics of runoff once overland flow began. Reduced ground cover on burned hillslopes allowed overland flow to concentrate into rills. The 3-year cumulative runoff from concentrated flow simulations on burned hillslopes (298 l) was nearly 20 times that measured on unburned hillslopes (16 l). The 3-year cumulative sediment yield from concentrated flow on burned and unburned hillslopes was 20,400 g m-2 and 6 g m-2 respectively. Fire effects on runoff generation and sediment were greatly reduced, but remained, 3 years post-fire. The results indicate that the impacts of fire on runoff and erosion from severely burned steep sagebrush landscapes vary significantly by microsite and process, exhibiting seasonal fluctuation in degree, and that fire-induced increases in runoff and erosion may require more than 3 years to return to background levels.