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Vegetation structure and fuel dynamics in fire-prone, Mediterranean-type Banksia woodlands

Citation

Tangney, Ryan et al. (2021), Vegetation structure and fuel dynamics in fire-prone, Mediterranean-type Banksia woodlands, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.t76hdr82c

Abstract

Increasing extreme wildfire occurrence globally is boosting demand to understand the fuel dynamics and fire risk of fire-prone areas. This is particularly pressing in fire-prone, Mediterranean climate-type vegetation, such as the Banksia woodlands surrounding metropolitan Perth, southwestern Australia. Despite an extensive wildland-urban interface and frequent fire occurrence, fuel accumulation and the spatial variation in fuel risk is not well quantified across the broad extent of this ecosystem. Using a space for time sampling approach to generate a chronosequence of time since fire, we selected sites that spanned across two distinct sandy soil types (Spearwood and Bassendean sands) and a rainfall gradient (550 to 750 mm north–south). We examined 82 sites in Banksia woodlands, southwestern Australia. Of the 82 sites, 44 burnt during the measurement period (2016 to 2021), which provided the opportunity for fuel measurements following fire (resulting in total N = 126). We wanted to answer two key questions: 1) How do measures of fuel load (mass) and arrangement (structure and continuity) vary across space and time, particularly with respect to time since the last fire? 2) How do biophysical drivers, such as soil type and rainfall, influence fuel accumulation and arrangement, and do these covariates improve litter fuel modelling beyond traditional asymptotic models? We found that fine surface fuel loads (litter and small twigs) differed between sand types, accumulating faster and reaching a higher peak on Spearwood sands (7–9 Mg ha−1) compared to Bassendean sands (6–7 Mg ha−1). Shrub layer fuel loads also accumulated faster on Spearwood sands than on Bassendean sands. While shrub layer fuels on Spearwood sands peaked at 14 years and declined thereafter, those on Bassendean sand did not decline over time but have lower overall connectivity. Total fine fuels (fine surface plus fine shrub layer fuels) had no significant decline over the same time period, on either sand type. Total fine fuel loads reached a peak of 9–10 Mg ha−1 between 13- and 20-years following fire, depending on the underlying sand type. Our quantitative fuel accumulation models confirmed the strength of time since fire as a predictor of hazard, but nonetheless included up to 40% unexplained variance. Importantly, while components fluctuated over time, the combined total of fine fuels did not decline with the long absence of fire, suggesting fire risk does not necessarily decrease in long unburned vegetation.

Funding

Australian Research Council, Award: LP160100996

Australian Research Council, Award: LP180100741