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Soil & Water
Engineering Publications

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William J. Elliot
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Assessing burn severity and comparing soil water repellency, Hayman Fire, Colorado

Lewis, S.A.; Wu, J.Q.; Robichaud, P.R. 2005. Assessing burn severity and comparing soil water repellency, Hayman Fire, Colorado. Hydrological Processes 20:1-16 (2006). Published online 26 August 2005.

Keywords: forest fire; water repellent soils; erosion; burn severity; water drop penetration time (WDPT); mini-disk infiltrometer (MDI), water repellency, Hayman Fire

Links: pdf PDF [213 KB] Through Wiley

Abstract: An important element of evaluating a large wildfire is to assess its effects on the soil in order to predict the potential watershed response. After the 55 000 ha Hayman Fire on the Colorado Front Range, 24 soil and vegetation variables were measured to determine the key variables that could be used for a rapid field assessment of burn severity. The percentage of exposed mineral soil and litter cover proved to be the best predictors of burn severity in this environment. Two burn severity classifications, one from a statistical classification tree and the other a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) burn severity map, were compared with measured ground truth burn severity at 183 plots and were 56% and 69% accurate, respectively.

This study also compared water repellency measurements made with the water drop penetration time (WDPT) test and a mini-disk infiltrometer (MDI) test. At the soil surface, the moderate and highly burned sites had the strongest water repellency, yet were not significantly different from each other. Areas burned at moderate severity had 1.5 times more plots that were strongly water repellent at the surface than the areas burned at high severity. However, the high severity plots most likely had a deeper water repellent layer that was not detected with our surface tests. The WDPT and MDI values had an overall correlation of r = -0.64(p < 0.0001) and appeared to be compatible methods for assessing soil water repellency in the field. Both tests represent point measurements of a soil characteristic that has large spatial variability; hence, results from both tests reflect that variability, accounting for much of the remaining variance. The MDI is easier to use, takes about 1 min to assess a strongly water repellent soil and provides two indicators of water repellency: the time to start of infiltration and a relative infiltration rate.

Moscow FSL publication no. 2005l