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Wildfire is an important and prevalent agent of disturbance in vegetated landscapes across much of the Earth’s surface, including forested watersheds in the arid western USA. Between 1992 and 2003, >40% of the watersheds in the upper reaches of the Boise River watershed in central Idaho burned. The purpose of our study was to investigate the legacy effects of wildfire on stream ecosystems by analyzing the relationship between wildfire and resulting debris flows and their joint effects on stream ecosystem metabolism in 31 streams. The watersheds of ∼½ of these streams burned within the last 11 y, and some of these burned watersheds also experienced large-scale debris flows 1 y postfire. Streams with burned watersheds recovered quickly, and estimates of photosynthetically active radiation, gross primary production, and ecosystem respiration were indistinguishable from those in streams draining unburned watersheds. However, streams that experienced debris flows after their watersheds burned were remarkably different. They exhibited higher production and incident light and lower ecosystem respiration. Debris flows resulted in nearly complete removal of streamside vegetation, slowed recovery of the riparian canopy, and altered stream ecosystem metabolism. Our results suggest a synergistic interaction between wildfire and associated geomorphological processes whereby debris flows delay succession of stream ecosystems, possibly resulting in altered recovery trajectories, communities, and foodweb interactions.

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This document was originally published in Freshwater Science by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1086/686151

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