School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences - Research Publications

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    Long-Term Response of Fuel to Mechanical Mastication in South-Eastern Australia
    Pickering, BJ ; Burton, JE ; Penman, TD ; Grant, MA ; Cawson, JG (MDPI, 2022-06-01)
    Mechanical mastication is a fuel management strategy that modifies vegetation structure to reduce the impact of wildfire. Although past research has quantified immediate changes to fuel post-mastication, few studies consider longer-term fuel trajectories and climatic drivers of this change. Our study sought to quantify changes to fuel loads and structure over time following mastication and as a function of landscape aridity. Measurements were made at 63 sites in Victoria, Australia. All sites had been masticated within the previous 9 years to remove over-abundant shrubs and small trees. We used generalised additive models to explore trends over time and along an aridity gradient. Surface fuel loads were highest immediately post-mastication and in the most arid sites. The surface fine fuel load declined over time, whereas the surface coarse fuel load remained high; these trends occurred irrespective of landscape aridity. Standing fuel (understorey and midstorey vegetation) regenerated consistently, but shrub cover was still substantially low at 9 years post-mastication. Fire managers need to consider the trade-off between a persistently higher surface coarse fuel load and reduced shrub cover to evaluate the efficacy of mastication for fuel management. Coarse fuel may increase soil heating and smoke emissions, but less shrub cover will likely moderate fire behaviour.
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    The fuel-climate-fire conundrum: How will fire regimes change in temperate eucalypt forests under climate change?
    McColl-Gausden, SC ; Bennett, LT ; Clarke, HG ; Ababei, DA ; Penman, TD (WILEY, 2022-06-16)
    Fire regimes are changing across the globe in response to complex interactions between climate, fuel, and fire across space and time. Despite these complex interactions, research into predicting fire regime change is often unidimensional, typically focusing on direct relationships between fire activity and climate, increasing the chances of erroneous fire predictions that have ignored feedbacks with, for example, fuel loads and availability. Here, we quantify the direct and indirect role of climate on fire regime change in eucalypt dominated landscapes using a novel simulation approach that uses a landscape fire modelling framework to simulate fire regimes over decades to centuries. We estimated the relative roles of climate-mediated changes as both direct effects on fire weather and indirect effects on fuel load and structure in a full factorial simulation experiment (present and future weather, present and future fuel) that included six climate ensemble members. We applied this simulation framework to predict changes in fire regimes across six temperate forested landscapes in south-eastern Australia that encompass a broad continuum from climate-limited to fuel-limited. Climate-mediated change in weather and fuel was predicted to intensify fire regimes in all six landscapes by increasing wildfire extent and intensity and decreasing fire interval, potentially led by an earlier start to the fire season. Future weather was the dominant factor influencing changes in all the tested fire regime attributes: area burnt, area burnt at high intensity, fire interval, high-intensity fire interval, and season midpoint. However, effects of future fuel acted synergistically or antagonistically with future weather depending on the landscape and the fire regime attribute. Our results suggest that fire regimes are likely to shift across temperate ecosystems in south-eastern Australia in coming decades, particularly in climate-limited systems where there is the potential for a greater availability of fuels to burn through increased aridity.
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    The 2019-2020 Australian forest fires are a harbinger of decreased prescribed burning effectiveness under rising extreme conditions
    Clarke, H ; Cirulis, B ; Penman, T ; Price, O ; Boer, MM ; Bradstock, R (NATURE PORTFOLIO, 2022-07-13)
    There is an imperative for fire agencies to quantify the potential for prescribed burning to mitigate risk to life, property and environmental values while facing changing climates. The 2019-2020 Black Summer fires in eastern Australia raised questions about the effectiveness of prescribed burning in mitigating risk under unprecedented fire conditions. We performed a simulation experiment to test the effects of different rates of prescribed burning treatment on risks posed by wildfire to life, property and infrastructure. In four forested case study landscapes, we found that the risks posed by wildfire were substantially higher under the fire weather conditions of the 2019-2020 season, compared to the full range of long-term historic weather conditions. For area burnt and house loss, the 2019-2020 conditions resulted in more than a doubling of residual risk across the four landscapes, regardless of treatment rate (mean increase of 230%, range 164-360%). Fire managers must prepare for a higher level of residual risk as climate change increases the likelihood of similar or even more dangerous fire seasons.
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    Warmer and drier conditions have increased the potential for large and severe fire seasons across south-eastern Australia
    Collins, L ; Clarke, H ; Clarke, MF ; McColl Gausden, SC ; Nolan, RH ; Penman, T ; Bradstock, R (WILEY, 2022-04-26)
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    Independent effects of drought and shade on growth, biomass allocation and leaf morphology of a flammable perennial grass Tetrarrhena juncea R.Br
    Cadiz, GO ; Cawson, JG ; Duff, TJ ; Penman, TD ; York, A ; Farrell, C (SPRINGER, 2021-06-11)
    Knowing the abundance of different plant species provides insights into the properties of vegetation communities, such as flammability. Therefore, a fundamental goal in ecology is identifying environmental conditions affecting the abundance of plant species across landscapes. Water and light are important environmental moderators of plant growth, and by extension, abundance. In the context of understanding forest flammability, the abundance of a flammable plant species in terms of its cover or biomass can shape the flammability of the whole vegetation community. We conducted a glasshouse experiment to determine the impact of drought and shade on growth, biomass allocation and leaf morphology of forest wiregrass Tetrarrhena juncea R.Br., a rhizomatous perennial grass. When it is abundant, this species is known to contribute substantially to the flammability of eucalypt forest understories (via both ignitability and combustibility). Contrasting hypotheses in the literature predict that drought can have a weaker, stronger, or independent (uncoupled) impact on plant growth when light is limiting. We used a randomized complete block design with ten treatments from the combination of two water levels (drought, well-watered) and five light levels (100%, 80%, 60%, 40%, 20%). Drought and shade were found to have independent effects on wiregrass growth, biomass allocation, and leaf morphology, supporting the uncoupled hypothesis. Growth showed greater plasticity in response to drought, while biomass allocation and leaf morphology showed greater plasticity in response to shade. Our results suggest that wiregrass is more likely to be abundant in terms of its cover and biomass when water is not limiting. Under these conditions, the increased wiregrass abundance could create a window of increased flammability for the forest ecosystem.
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    Fire and biodiversity in the Anthropocene
    Kelly, LT ; Giljohann, KM ; Duane, A ; Aquilue, N ; Archibald, S ; Batllori, E ; Bennett, AF ; Buckland, ST ; Canelles, Q ; Clarke, MF ; Fortin, M-J ; Hermoso, V ; Herrando, S ; Keane, RE ; Lake, FK ; McCarthy, MA ; Moran-Ordonez, A ; Parr, CL ; Pausas, JG ; Penman, TD ; Regos, A ; Rumpff, L ; Santos, JL ; Smith, AL ; Syphard, AD ; Tingley, MW ; Brotons, L (AMER ASSOC ADVANCEMENT SCIENCE, 2020-11-20)
    BACKGROUND Fire has shaped the diversity of life on Earth for millions of years. Variation in fire regimes continues to be a source of biodiversity across the globe, and many plants, animals, and ecosystems depend on particular temporal and spatial patterns of fire. Although people have been using fire to modify environments for millennia, the combined effects of human activities are now changing patterns of fire at a global scale—to the detriment of human society, biodiversity, and ecosystems. These changes pose a global challenge for understanding how to sustain biodiversity in a new era of fire. We synthesize how changes in fire activity are threatening species with extinction across the globe, highlight forward-looking methods for predicting the combined effects of human drivers and fire on biodiversity, and foreshadow emerging actions and strategies that could revolutionize how society manages fire for biodiversity in the Anthropocene. ADVANCES Our synthesis shows that interactions with anthropogenic drivers such as global climate change, land use, and biotic invasions are transforming fire activity and its impacts on biodiversity. More than 4400 terrestrial and freshwater species from a wide range of taxa and habitats face threats associated with modified fire regimes. Many species are threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity, but exclusion of fire in ecosystems that need it can also be harmful. The prominent role of human activity in shaping global ecosystems is the hallmark of the Anthropocene and sets the context in which models and actions must be developed. Advances in predictive modeling deliver new opportunities to couple fire and biodiversity data and to link them with forecasts of multiple drivers including drought, invasive plants, and urban growth. Making these connections also provides an opportunity for new actions that could revolutionize how society manages fire. Emerging actions include reintroduction of mammals that reduce fuels, green fire breaks comprising low-flammability plants, strategically letting wildfires burn under the right conditions, managed evolution of populations aided by new genomics tools, and deployment of rapid response teams to protect biodiversity assets. Indigenous fire stewardship and reinstatement of cultural burning in a modern context will enhance biodiversity and human well-being in many regions of the world. At the same time, international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events that contribute to declines in biodiversity. OUTLOOK Conservation of Earth’s biological diversity will be achieved only by recognition of and response to the critical role of fire in shaping ecosystems. Global changes in fire regimes will continue to amplify interactions between anthropogenic drivers and create difficult trade-offs between environmental and social objectives. Scientific input will be crucial for navigating major decisions about novel and changing ecosystems. Strategic collection of data on fire, biodiversity, and socioeconomic variables will be essential for developing models to capture the feedbacks, tipping points, and regime shifts characteristic of the Anthropocene. New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead. At the local and regional scale, getting more of the “right” type of fire in landscapes that need it requires new alliances and networks to build and apply knowledge. At the national and global scale, biodiversity conservation will benefit from greater integration of fire into national biodiversity strategies and action plans and in the implementation of international agreements and initiatives such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Placing the increasingly important role of people at the forefront of efforts to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes is central to these endeavors.
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    Future fire regimes increase risks to obligate-seeder forests
    McColl-Gausden, SC ; Bennett, LT ; Ababei, DA ; Clarke, HG ; Penman, TD ; Archibald, SFIRE (WILEY, 2021-09-23)
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    The 2019/2020 mega-fires exposed Australian ecosystems to an unprecedented extent of high-severity fire
    Collins, L ; Bradstock, RA ; Clarke, H ; Clarke, MF ; Nolan, RH ; Penman, TD (IOP Publishing Ltd, 2021-04-01)
    Abstract Extreme fire seasons characterised by very large ‘mega-fires’ have demonstrably increased area burnt across forested regions globally. However, the effect of extreme fire seasons on fire severity, a measure of fire impacts on ecosystems, remains unclear. Very large wildfires burnt an unprecedented area of temperate forest, woodland and shrubland across south-eastern Australia in 2019/2020, providing an opportunity to examine the impact of extreme fires on fire severity patterns. We developed an atlas of wildfire severity across south-eastern Australia between 1988 and 2020 to test (a) whether the 2019/2020 fire season was more severe than previous fire seasons, and (b) if the proportion of high-severity fire within the burn extent (HSp) increases with wildfire size and annual area burnt. We demonstrate that the 2019/2020 wildfires in south-eastern Australia were generally greater in extent but not proportionally more severe than previous fires, owing to constant scaling between HSp and annual fire extent across the dominant dry-forest communities. However, HSp did increase with increasing annual fire extent across wet-forests and the less-common rainforest and woodland communities. The absolute area of high-severity fire in 2019/2020 (∼1.8 M ha) was larger than previously seen, accounting for ∼44% of the area burnt by high-severity fire over the past 33 years. Our results demonstrate that extreme fire seasons are a rare but defining feature of fire regimes across forested regions, owing to the disproportionate influence of mega-fires on area burnt.
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    Mechanical Mastication Reduces Fuel Structure and Modelled Fire Behaviour in Australian Shrub Encroached Ecosystems
    Grant, MA ; Duff, TJ ; Penman, TD ; Pickering, BJ ; Cawson, JG (MDPI, 2021-06-01)
    Shrub encroachment of grassland and woodland ecosystems can alter wildfire behaviour and threaten ecological values. Australian fire managers are using mechanical mastication to reduce the fire risk in encroached ecosystems but are yet to evaluate its effectiveness or ecological impact. We asked: (1) How does fuel load and structure change following mastication?; (2) Is mastication likely to affect wildfire rates of spread and flame heights?; and (3) What is the impact of mastication on flora species richness and diversity? At thirteen paired sites (masticated versus control; n = 26), located in Victoria, Australia, we measured fuel properties (structure, load and hazard) and floristic diversity (richness and Shannon’s H) in 400 mP2 plots. To quantify the effects of mastication, data were analysed using parametric and non-parametric paired sample techniques. Masticated sites were grouped into two categories, 0–2 and 3–4 years post treatment. Fire behaviour was predicted using the Dry Eucalypt Forest Fire Model. Mastication with follow-up herbicide reduced the density of taller shrubs, greater than 50 cm in height, for at least 4 years. The most recently masticated sites (0–2 years) had an almost 3-fold increase in dead fine fuel loads and an 11-fold increase in dead coarse fuel loads on the forest floor compared with the controls. Higher dead coarse fuel loads were still evident after 3–4 years. Changes to fuel properties produced a reduction in predicted flame heights from 22 m to 5–6 m under severe fire weather conditions, but no change in the predicted fire rate of spread. Reductions in flame height would be beneficial for wildfire suppression and could reduce the damage to property from wildfires. Mastication did not have a meaningful effect on native species diversity, but promoted the abundance of some exotic species.
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    The Effect of Antecedent Fire Severity on Reburn Severity and Fuel Structure in a Resprouting Eucalypt Forest in Victoria, Australia
    Collins, L ; Hunter, A ; McColl-Gausden, S ; Penman, TD ; Zylstra, P (MDPI, 2021-04-01)
    Research highlights—Feedbacks between fire severity, vegetation structure and ecosystem flammability are understudied in highly fire-tolerant forests that are dominated by epicormic resprouters. We examined the relationships between the severity of two overlapping fires in a resprouting eucalypt forest and the subsequent effect of fire severity on fuel structure. We found that the likelihood of a canopy fire was the highest in areas that had previously been exposed to a high level of canopy scorch or consumption. Fuel structure was sensitive to the time since the previous canopy fire, but not the number of canopy fires. Background and Objectives—Feedbacks between fire and vegetation may constrain or amplify the effect of climate change on future wildfire behaviour. Such feedbacks have been poorly studied in forests dominated by highly fire-tolerant epicormic resprouters. Here, we conducted a case study based on two overlapping fires within a eucalypt forest that was dominated by epicormic resprouters to examine (1) whether past wildfire severity affects future wildfire severity, and (2) how combinations of understorey fire and canopy fire within reburnt areas affect fuel properties. Materials and Methods—The study focused on ≈77,000 ha of forest in south-eastern Australia that was burnt by a wildfire in 2007 and reburnt in 2013. The study system was dominated by eucalyptus trees that can resprout epicormically following fires that substantially scorch or consume foliage in the canopy layer. We used satellite-derived mapping to assess whether the severity of the 2013 fire was affected by the severity of the 2007 fire. Five levels of fire severity were considered (lowest to highest): unburnt, low canopy scorch, moderate canopy scorch, high canopy scorch and canopy consumption. Field surveys were then used to assess whether combinations of understorey fire (<80% canopy scorch) and canopy fire (>90% canopy consumption) recorded over the 2007 and 2013 fires caused differences in fuel structure. Results—Reburn severity was influenced by antecedent fire severity under severe fire weather, with the likelihood of canopy-consuming fire increasing with increasing antecedent fire severity up to those classes causing a high degree of canopy disturbance (i.e., high canopy scorch or canopy consumption). The increased occurrence of canopy-consuming fire largely came at the expense of the moderate and high canopy scorch classes, suggesting that there was a shift from crown scorch to crown consumption. Antecedent fire severity had little effect on the severity patterns of the 2013 fire under nonsevere fire weather. Areas affected by canopy fire in 2007 and/or 2013 had greater vertical connectivity of fuels than sites that were reburnt by understorey fires, though we found no evidence that repeated canopy fires were having compounding effects on fuel structure. Conclusions—Our case study suggests that exposure to canopy-defoliating fires has the potential to increase the severity of subsequent fires in resprouting eucalypt forests in the short term. We propose that the increased vertical connectivity of fuels caused by resprouting and seedling recruitment were responsible for the elevated fire severity. The effect of antecedent fire severity on reburn severity will likely be constrained by a range of factors, such as fire weather.