Deriving hillslope sediment budgets in wildfire-affected forests using fallout radionuclide tracers

W. H. Blake*, P. J. Wallbrink, S. N. Wilkinson, G. S. Humphreys, S. H. Doerr, R. A. Shakesby, K. M. Tomkins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Citations (Scopus)


Information on post-fire sediment and nutrient redistribution is required to underpin post-fire catchment management decisions. Fallout radionuclide budgets (210Pbxs, 137Cs and 7Be) were derived to quantify soil redistribution and sediment yield in forested terrain following a moderately severe wildfire in a small (89 ha) water supply catchment in SE Australia. Application of these techniques in burnt terrain requires careful consideration of the partitioning of radionuclides between organic and mineral soil components. Beryllium-7 and 210Pbxs were shown to be closely associated with ash, litter and soil organic matter whereas 137Cs was more closely associated with subsurface coarse mineral soil. Comparison of the three tracer budgets indicated that the dominant sediment source areas were ridgetops and steep valley sideslopes, from which burnt surface material was conveyed to the stream network via pre-existing gullies. Erosion was predominantly driven by sheetwash, enhanced by soil water repellency, and modified by bioturbation which both supplies subsurface sediment and provides sinks for erosive overland flow. Footslope and riparian zones were not important sediment source areas. The estimated event-based (wildfire and subsequent rainfall) sediment yield is 58 ± 25 t km- 2, based on fallout 7Be measurements. The upper estimate of total particulate phosphorus yield (0.70 kg ha- 1) is more than 10 times that at equivalent unburnt sites. This illustrates that, soon after fire, burnt eucalypt forest can produce nutrient loads similar to those of agricultural catchments. The tracer budgets indicate that wildfire is an important control on sediment and phosphorus inputs to the stream network over the decadal timeframe and the pulsed nature of this release is an important concern for water quality management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-116
Number of pages12
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2009


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