Does inherent flammability of grass and litter fuels contribute to continental patterns of landscape fire activity?

Lynda D. Prior, Brett P. Murphy, Grant J. Williamson, Mark A. Cochrane, W. Matt Jolly, David M J S Bowman

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Aims: To (1) identify the trade-offs among flammability attributes within grass and litter fuel types; (2) determine how flammability attributes of grass and litter fuels vary across macro-ecological gradients; and (3) test our hypothesis that inherent flammability attributes of grass and litter fuels scale to satellite-derived proxies for fire frequency and intensity.

    Location: Continent of Australia. 

    Methods: Samples of litter and grass fuels collected from 133 sites across Australia were oven dried, then burnt under controlled conditions. Measurements of ignitability, combustibility and sustainability were made. Estimates of fire frequency and fire radiative power (a proxy for intensity) were derived from satellite imagery. Multivariate analyses were used to identify inter-relationships among variables and trends across macro-ecological gradients. 

    Results: Flammability was best described by two axes: high rate of combustion versus long duration of burning, and fast rate of spread versus high maximum temperature. As expected, our study confirmed that grass and litter fuel types have inherently differently flammability attributes whereby grass samples burn more quickly, with a higher rate of spread, than litter samples. However, there were also smaller differences in flammability attributes within fuel types, which scaled to rainfall, temperature and soil phosphorus concentrations. In keeping with our hypothesis, we found correlations between inherent fuel flammability attributes and landscape fire activity across the Australian continent. Fire frequency and rate of combustion of grass fuels were both highest in the tropics, and fire intensity and maximum temperature during combustion of litter fuels were highest in temperate areas. 

    Main conclusions: At a continental scale, we found landscape fire activity was correlated with inherent flammability of grass and litter fuels. This inherent flammability contributes to observed pyrogeographical patterns that are shaped by climate through its known effects on plant productivity, the abundance of cured grass biomass and fire weather.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1225-1238
    Number of pages14
    JournalJournal of Biogeography
    Issue number6
    Early online date20 Oct 2016
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


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