Restoring a Natural Fire Regime Alters the Water Balance of a Sierra Nevada Catchment

Gabrielle F. S. Boisrame, Sally Thompson, Christina (Naomi) Tague, Scott L. Stephens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Fire suppression in western U.S. mountains has caused dense forests with high water demands to grow. Restoring natural wildfire regimes to these forests could affect hydrology by changing vegetation composition and structure, but the specific effects on water balance are unknown. Mountain watersheds supply water to much of the western United States, so understanding the relationship between fire regime and water yield is essential to inform management. We used a distributed hydrological model to quantify hydrologic response to a restored fire regime in the Illilouette Creek Basin (ICB) within Yosemite National Park, California. Over the past 45 years, as successive fires reduced the ICB's forest cover approximately 25%, model results show that annual streamflow, subsurface water storage, and peak snowpack increased relative to a fire‐suppressed control, while evapotranspiration and climatic water deficit decreased. A second model experiment compared the water balance in the ICB under two vegetation cover scenarios: 2012 vegetation, representing a frequent‐fire landscape, and 1969 vegetation, representing fire suppression. These two model landscapes were run with observed weather data from 1972 to 2017 in order to capture natural variations in precipitation and temperature. This experiment showed that wet years experienced greater fire‐related reductions in evapotranspiration and increases in streamflow, while reductions in climatic water deficit were greater in dry years. Spring snowmelt runoff was higher under burned conditions, while summer baseflow was relatively unaffected. Restoring wildfire to the fire‐suppressed ICB likely increased downstream water availability, shifted streamflows slightly earlier, and reduced water stress to forests.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5751-5769
Number of pages19
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


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