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International Journal of Wildland Fire
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The temporal evolution of wildfire ash and implications for post-fire infiltration

Victoria N. Balfour A D , Stefan H. Doerr B and Peter R. Robichaud C

A Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.
B Department of Geography, University of Wales Swansea, Singleton Park, Swansea, SA2 8PP, UK.
C US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Forestry Science Laboratory, 1221 South Main Street, Moscow, ID 83843, USA.
D Corresponding author. Email: vnbalfour@gmail.com

International Journal of Wildland Fire - http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF13159
Submitted: 18 September 2013  Accepted: 4 March 2014   Published online: 10 June 2014


 
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Abstract

Changes in the properties of an ash layer with time may affect the amount of post-fire runoff, particularly by the formation of ash surface crusts. The formation of depositional crusts by ash have been observed at the pore and plot scales, but the causes and temporal evolution of ash layers and associated crusts have not yet been thoroughly investigated. In the long term, ash crusting effects will decrease as the ash layer is removed by wind and water erosion, but in the short term ash crusting could contribute to the observed changes in post-fire runoff. This research addresses these topics by studying the evolution over time of highly combusted ash layers from two high-severity wildfires that occurred in Montana in 2011. More specifically, this research was designed to assess the potential for ash crusts to form and thereby contribute to the observed decreases in infiltration after forest fires. Results indicate that high-combustion ash can evolve due to post-fire rainfall. Plots that exhibited a visible ash crust also displayed a significant decrease in effective porosity and hydraulic conductivity. These decreases in ash layer characteristics were attributed to raindrop compaction and ash hydration resulting in the formation of carbonate crystals, which decreased effective porosity and flow within the ash layer. During this same time period, inorganic carbon content more than doubled from 11 to 26% and bulk density significantly increased from 0.22 to 0.39 g cm–3 on crusted plots. Although raindrop impact increased the robustness of the ash crust, mineralogical transformations must occur to produce a hydrologically relevant ash crust. These results indicate that post-fire rainfall is an important control on the properties of the ash layer after burning and on crust formation. The observed temporal changes indicate that the timing of ash sampling can alter the predictions as to whether the ash layer is effecting post-fire infiltration and runoff. Despite the reduction in infiltration capacity, the formation of post-fire ash crusts could prove beneficial to post-fire hazard mitigation by stabilising the ash layer, and reducing aeolian mixing and erosion.

Additional keywords: ash crust formation, ash evolution, wildfires.


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