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Bioclimatic drivers of fire severity across the Australian geographical range of giant Eucalyptus forests

Furlaud, JM ORCID: 0000-0003-3925-0130, Prior, LD ORCID: 0000-0002-5511-2320, Williamson, GJ ORCID: 0000-0002-3469-7550 and Bowman, DMJS ORCID: 0000-0001-8075-124X 2021 , 'Bioclimatic drivers of fire severity across the Australian geographical range of giant Eucalyptus forests' , Journal of Ecology, vol. 109, no. 6 , pp. 2514-2536 , doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.13663.

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Abstract

The relationships between productivity, fire frequency and fire severity shape the distribution of plant communities globally. Dry forests are expected to burn frequently and wet forests to burn infrequently. However, the effect of productivity on intensity and severity of wildfire is less consistent and poorly understood. One productive ecosystem where this is especially true is the Australian tall wet Eucalyptus‐dominated forest (TWEF), which spans wet areas across the continent. This study aims to characterise how climate shapes the likelihood of low‐ and high‐severity wildfire across Australian TWEF.We performed a continental‐scale analysis of fuels in 48 permanent plots in early‐mature stage TWEF across four climate regions in Australia. We estimated fuel loads and measured understorey microclimate. We then obtained historical fire‐weather observations from nearby meteorological stations and used fuel moisture and fire behaviour equations to predict the historical frequency with which TWEF could burn and what fire severities were expected. We investigated how this varies across the different TWEF climate regions. Lastly, we validated our approach by remeasuring eight plots that burned unexpectedly post‐measurement.We found that surface fuels in cooler, moister regions were available to burn 1-16 days per year historically, with only low‐severity, surface fire possible most of these days: high‐severity fire was only possible under rare, extreme fire‐weather conditions. However, in warmer, drier regions, fuels were available to burn 23-35 days annually, and high‐severity fire was more likely than low‐severity fire. Validation showed that we slightly overestimated flame heights, inflating high‐severity risk estimates. If we used elevated fuel loads to predict flame heights, however, high‐severity fire was more likely than low‐severity fire everywhere. Lastly, the likelihood of high‐severity fire increased with increasing temperature and worsening fire weather.Synthesis. Fire activity in early‐mature TWEF is limited by climatic constraints on fire weather and availability to burn, with high‐severity fire more likely in warmer, drier regions than in cooler, wetter ones. This indicates a particularly worrisome vulnerability to climate change, given TWEF's diminished ability to recover from disturbance in a warmer world. The occurrence of both low‐ and high‐severity fire means the fire regimes of TWEF are best described as mixed severity.

Item Type: Article
Authors/Creators:Furlaud, JM and Prior, LD and Williamson, GJ and Bowman, DMJS
Keywords: biogeography, climate change, ecological disturbance, fire ecology, fire severity, macroecology, mixed-severity fires, tall wet Eucalyptus forests
Journal or Publication Title: Journal of Ecology
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
ISSN: 0022-0477
DOI / ID Number: 10.1111/1365-2745.13663
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2021 British Ecological Society

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