Modeling the impacts of wildfire on runoff and pollutant transport from coastal watersheds to the nearshore environment

J Environ Manage. 2015 Mar 15;151:113-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.12.025. Epub 2014 Dec 27.


Wildfire is a common disturbance that can significantly alter vegetation in watersheds and affect the rate of sediment and nutrient transport to adjacent nearshore oceanic environments. Changes in runoff resulting from heterogeneous wildfire effects are not well-understood due to both limitations in the field measurement of runoff and temporally-limited spatial data available to parameterize runoff models. We apply replicable, scalable methods for modeling wildfire impacts on sediment and nonpoint source pollutant export into the nearshore environment, and assess relationships between wildfire severity and runoff. Nonpoint source pollutants were modeled using a GIS-based empirical deterministic model parameterized with multi-year land cover data to quantify fire-induced increases in transport to the nearshore environment. Results indicate post-fire concentration increases in phosphorus by 161 percent, sediments by 350 percent and total suspended solids (TSS) by 53 percent above pre-fire years. Higher wildfire severity was associated with the greater increase in exports of pollutants and sediment to the nearshore environment, primarily resulting from the conversion of forest and shrubland to grassland. This suggests that increasing wildfire severity with climate change will increase potential negative impacts to adjacent marine ecosystems. The approach used is replicable and can be utilized to assess the effects of other types of land cover change at landscape scales. It also provides a planning and prioritization framework for management activities associated with wildfire, including suppression, thinning, and post-fire rehabilitation, allowing for quantification of potential negative impacts to the nearshore environment in coastal basins.

Keywords: Big Sur; Burn severity; California; Erosion; Land cover change; Nonpoint source pollutants; OpenNSPECT; Wildfire.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ecosystem*
  • Fires*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Water Movements*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry*


  • Water Pollutants, Chemical