State Water Resources Research Institute Program


Project ID: 2009MT192B
Title: Student Fellowship: Variability in the Characteristics of Wildfire Ash: Implications for Post-Fire Runoff, Erosion, and Water Quality
Project Type: Research
Start Date: 3/01/2009
End Date: 12/31/2009
Congressional District: At-Large
Focus Categories: Water Quality
Keywords: forest fire, ash, ash, infiltration, runoff, erosion, water quality
Principal Investigator: Balfour, Victoria
Federal Funds: $ 1,500
Non-Federal Matching Funds: $ 0
Abstract: Wildfire ash is often overlooked as a contributing variable to drastic hydrological changes following forest fires. In fact the term "ash" itself does not have a clear definition within wildfire science. My doctoral work aims to clarify this issue and help ascertain what role ash may play towards changes in post-fire runoff and erosion. Understanding the role of wildfire ash in post-fire hydrological systems is important in terms of assessing post-fire hydrological hazards such as debris flows, excess sedimentation of river systems and impairment of aquatic habitat. The aforementioned hazards pose serious consequences to water quality not only here in Montana but globally, therefore it is essential that mitigation efforts be focused on high-risk areas.

Ash can have a range of ecological effects in the post-fire environment, including changes in soil chemistry, runoff and erosion rates, and downstream water quality. While the effects of ash on soil chemistry are fairly well understood, there are still important questions regarding ash effects on infiltration, runoff, erosion and water quality. The key issue is that the existing studies indicate considerable between-site variability in ash effects on infiltration, runoff, erosion and water quality, but the cause of this variability is not well understood. This research hypothesizes that variability in the effects of ash on infiltration, runoff, erosion and water quality is primarily due to variability in the physical and chemical characteristics of the ash. With this in mind we propose a research study that seeks to achieve the following objectives: 1) characterize the variability in the physical and chemical properties of wildfire ash that affect infiltration, runoff, erosion and water quality, as a function of fire severity and fuel type; and 2) relate the variability in ash properties to variability in the observed effects on infiltration, runoff, erosion and water quality.

Progress/Completion Report, 2009, PDF

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