Burn Scars Have an Increased Risk of
Flash Flooding and Debris Flows

The Fontenelle Wildfire in 2012

 


Burn Scars and Flash Flooding

Wildfires and Flooding

The extraordinary wildfire season of 2012 has some lasting effects on the landscape, both in the immediate area and locations that may be several miles away.  Locations downhill and downstream from burned areas are very susceptible to Flash Flooding and Debris Flows, especially near steep terrain. Rainfall that would normally be absorbed will run off extremely quickly after a wildfire, as burned soil can be as water repellant as pavement. As a result much less rainfall is required to produce a flash flood. A good rule of thumb is: "If you can look uphill from where you are and see a burnt-out area, you are at risk."

2012 and 2013 Wildfire Burn Scars

Click on one of the six tabs below to retrieve more information about a particular burn scar from one of the five large fires to impact western Wyoming in 2012 or the Fairfield Hill Fire near Lander in 2013.  Included with each tab view are several maps detailing direction of drainge, impacted creeks and lakes, and a general overview map.  A wildfire-specific fact sheet and other important information for you to know is alos available on each page.

Alpine Lake Fire Fontenelle Fire Gilead Fire Horsethief Canyon Fire
Casper Sheep Herder Hill Fire

Fairfield Hill Fire

What is a debris flow?

As water runs downhill through burned areas it can create major
erosion and pick up large amounts of ash, sand, silt,Image of a Debris Flow - Courtesy NRCS rocks and burned vegetation (Trees). The force of the rushing water and debris can damage or destroy culverts, bridges, roadways, and buildings even miles away from the burned area.

How Can I Be Prepared?

In the event of moderate to heavy rainfall, do not wait for a flash flood warning in order to take steps to protect life and property. Thunderstorms that develop over the burned area may begin to produce flash flooding and debris flows before a warning can be issued. If you are in an area vulnerable to flooding and debris flows, plan in advance and move away from the area. There may be very little time to react once the storms and rain start.

How much rainfall is required to produce a flash flood after a wildfire?

The time required for a flash flood to begin depends on how severe the fire was and how steep the terrain is, combined with the rate of precipitation. Steep terrain combined with a severe burn scar and light precipitation can result in flash flooding within minutes of precipitation beginning. Areas of less severe burn damage and flatter terrain will be able to absorb more water leading to more time before flooding develops even in heavier precipitation. A general rule of thumb is that half an inch of rainfall in less than an hour is sufficient to cause Flash Flooding in a burn area, but this can be more or less depending on the factors above. The susceptibility to flash flood within the burned area is greatest during the first two years following the fire.  The important point is that for any burn area it will take much less rainfall to result in flash flooding than it would have before the wildfire occurred. In fact, Thunderstorms that develop over burn areas can produce Flash Flooding and Debris Flows nearly as fast as National Weather Service radar can detect the rainfall. If heavy rainfall is observed even for a very short time there is the potential for Flash Flooding and/or Debris Flows.

How long will there be an elevated risk of Flash Flooding and Debris Flows?

This depends on the severity of the wildfire that occurred as well as how much erosion occurs. It could take many years for vegetation to become reestablished and this is the main factor in slowing the precipitation run off that creates Flash Flooding and Debris Flows. Most burn areas will be prone to this activity for at least two years. Each wildfire burn area poses its own unique risk of Flash Flooding due to many factors including proximity to population centers, burn severity, steepness of terrain, and size of the burned area.

 Pre-Fire Ground Condition  Post-Fire Ground Condition  What happens when heavy rain falls on a fire burn scar?
Pre-Fire Ground Conditions Post-Fire Ground Conditions

What happens when
heavy rain falls on a
fire burn scar? 

  

What should people who live near a burn scar do to protect themselves from potential flash flooding and debris flows?

  • Have an evacuation/escape route planned that is least likely to be impacted by Flash Flooding or
    Debris Flows
  • Have an Emergency Supply Kit available
  • Stay informed before and during any potential event; knowing where to obtain National Weather Service (NWS) Outlooks, Watches and Warnings via the NWS Riverton website, Facebook, Twitter, or
    All Hazards NOAA Weather Radio
  • Be alert if any rain develops. Do not wait for a warning to evacuate should heavy rain develop.
  • Call 911 if you are caught in a Flash Flood or Debris Flow
  • Additional Flood Safety information is available on the web here
  • Property Protection information from NRCS is available here
  • Contact local officials for additional risk information and potential mitigation efforts

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