Center for Environmental Policy and Administration

Fire, Floods and Woody Debris: Interactions Between Biotic and Geomorphic Processes

Author:Jacob Bendix and C.M. Cowell
Date: 2009
Publication:Published online in Geomorphology (DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2009.09.043)

Fire and floods interact in the riparian zone as processes that structure plant communities and landforms. Although much of the immediate impact of fire is on the vegetation, fire-related changes in runoff, sediment supply, riparian vegetation, and woody debris volume have ongoing geomorphic impacts on the valley floor. Consequent hydrogeomorphic changes, in turn, affect the composition and distribution of vegetation. This paper reviews these interactions, and provides an example of how fires and floods intersect to supply burnt trees as woody debris. Because the temporal and spatial distribution of woody debris is initially controlled by patterns of tree mortality, ecological disturbances, like fire, can be an important source for pulses of woody debris in riparian systems. To understand these interactions, we examine woody debris inputs 3 years after a wildfire in the riparian gallery forests of the western Transverse Ranges, California. Within our sample of 339 burned stems, snags fell in distinctive patterns: species were variable in susceptibility to falling, and fell at greater rates at sites with greater subsequent flooding. Discordance between the species composition of fallen snags and that of overall burned stems indicates that variability in forest composition must be considered in predicting post-disturbance inputs of woody debris. Variation in snagfall timing among species suggests that woody debris inputs are likely to occur in multiple, sequential pulses after wildfire. The role of flooding is superimposed on this ecological influence, as the timing and spatial variability of floods affect the recruitment of woody debris from the supply of snags created by fire.


Jacob Bendix
Center for Environmental Policy and Administration
The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Revised 11/30/2010 20:46:14