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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Short Communications

Spatial Analysis of a Large Magnitude Erosion Event Following a Sierran Wildfire


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 36 No. 4, p. 1105-1111
    Received: Oct 26, 2006

    * Corresponding author(s): wilymalr@cabnr.unr.edu
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  1. Erin M. Carroll,
  2. Wally W. Miller *,
  3. Dale W. Johnson,
  4. Laurel Saito,
  5. Robert G. Qualls and
  6. Roger F. Walker
  1. Dep. of Natural Resources & Environmental Science, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources, Univ. of Nevada-Reno, 1000 Valley Rd., Reno, NV 89512


High intensity wildfire due to long-term fire suppression and heavy fuels buildup can render watersheds highly susceptible to wind and water erosion. The 2002 “Gondola” wildfire, located just southeast of Lake Tahoe, NV-CA, was followed 2 wk later by a severe hail and rainfall event that deposited 7.6 to 15.2 mm of precipitation over a 3 to 5 h time period. This resulted in a substantive upland ash and sediment flow with subsequent down-gradient riparian zone deposition. Point measurements and ESRI ArcView were applied to spatially assess source area contributions and the extent of ash and sediment flow deposition in the riparian zone. A deposition mass of 380 Mg of ash and sediment over 0.82 ha and pre-wildfire surface bulk density measurements were used in conjunction with two source area assessments to generate an estimation of 10.1 mm as the average depth of surface material eroded from the upland source area. Compared to previous measurements of erosion during rainfall simulation studies, the erosion of 1800 to 6700 g m−2 mm−1 determined from this study was as much as four orders of magnitude larger. Wildfire, followed by the single event documented in this investigation, enhanced soil water repellency and contributed 17 to 67% of the reported 15 to 60 mm ky−1 of non-glacial, baseline erosion rates occurring in mountainous, granitic terrain sites in the Sierra Nevada. High fuel loads now common to the Lake Tahoe Basin increase the risk that similar erosion events will become more commonplace, potentially contributing to the accelerated degradation of Lake Tahoe's water clarity.

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