Predicting the effectiveness of different mulching techniques in reducing post-fire runoff and erosion at plot scale with the RUSLE, MMF and PESERA models

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Wildfires have become a recurrent threat for many Mediterranean forest ecosystems. The characteristics of the Mediterranean climate, with its warm and dry summers and mild and wet winters, make this a region prone to wildfire occurrence as well as to post-fire soil erosion. This threat is expected to be aggravated in the future due to climate change and land management practices and planning.

The wide recognition of wildfires as a driver for runoff and erosion in burnt forest areas has created a strong demand for model-based tools for predicting the post-fire hydrological and erosion response and, in particular, for predicting the effectiveness of post-fire management operations to mitigate these responses.

In this study, the effectiveness of two post-fire treatments (hydromulch and natural pine needle mulch) in reducing post-fire runoff and soil erosion was evaluated against control conditions (i.e. untreated conditions), at different spatial scales.

The main objective of this study was to use field data to evaluate the ability of different erosion models: (i) empirical (RUSLE), (ii) semi-empirical (MMF), and (iii) physically-based (PESERA), to predict the hydrological and erosive response as well as the effectiveness of different mulching techniques in fire-affected areas.

The results of this study showed that all three models were reasonably able to reproduce the hydrological and erosive processes occurring in burned forest areas. In addition, it was demonstrated that the models can be calibrated at a small spatial scale (0.5 m2) but provide accurate results at greater spatial scales (10 m2).

From this work, the RUSLE model seems to be ideal for fast and simple applications (i.e. prioritization of areas-at-risk) mainly due to its simplicity and reduced data requirements. On the other hand, the more complex MMF and PESERA models would be valuable as a base of a possible tool for assessing the risk of water contamination in fire-affected water bodies and for testing different land management scenarios.

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