Wildfire can dramatically modify the surface environment by removing surface vegetation, killing microbial communities and changing the soil geochemical and physical structure. Wildfires are a widespread phenomenon in Australia with 87,810 ha burnt in 2015-2016 in NSW alone (New South Wales Rural Fire Service, 2016). However, there has been little research on the impact of wildfire on vadose zone hydrology in Australia or elsewhere.
Limestone caves can be used as natural laboratories to study the impact of the surface environment on vadose zone hydrology in real time. We conducted a two year monitoring program to examine the short term (less than one year) post-fire impacts on the geochemistry and hydrology of vadose zone water in Glory Hole Cave, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW. We ignited an experimental wildfire on the surface over the cave after 1 year of monitoring and compared the pre- and post-fire data.
The findings indicate that there is a short term post-fire response in the organic and inorganic geochemistry vadose zone water. There was a post-fire spike in dissolved organic carbon, dominated by the hydrophilic fraction more than one month post-fire which was most likely due to high influx of ash from the fire. There was a multi-month increase in organic-associated metals such as Cu and Zn. The concentration of trace metals such as Fe and Si increased by an order of magnitude less than three months post-fire and was attributed to a flush of small colloidal organic matter. This study enabled us to establish that there is an organic and inorganic cave vadose zone water response to wildfires. The findings of this study can inform fire management strategies in order to protect sensitive karst environments in addition to water resource managers concerned with fluxes of mobilised metals nutrient fluxes to the vadose zone.