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The steep, tectonically active terrain along the Central California (USA) coast is well known to produce deadly and destructive debris flows. However, the extent to which fire affects debris-flow susceptibility in this region is an open question. We documented the occurrence of postfire debris floods and flows following the landfall of a storm that delivered intense rainfall across multiple burn areas. We used this inventory to evaluate the predictive performance of the US Geological Survey M1 likelihood model, a tool that presently underlies the emergency assessment of postfire debris-flow hazards in the western USA. To test model performance, we used the threat score skill statistic and found that the rainfall thresholds estimated by the M1 model for the Central California coast performed similarly to training (Southern California) and testing (Intermountain West) data associated with the original model calibration. Model performance decreased when differentiating between “minor” and “major” postfire hydrologic response types, which weigh effects on human life and infrastructure. Our results underscore that the problem of false positives is a major challenge for developing accurate rainfall thresholds for the occurrence of postfire debris flows. As wildfire activity increases throughout the western USA, so too will the demand for the assessment of postfire debris-flow hazards. We conclude that additional collection of field-verified inventories of postfire hydrologic response will be critical to prioritize which model variables may be suitable candidates for regional calibration or replacement.


Published in Landslides by Springer. Available via doi: 10.1007/s10346-023-02106-7.

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