Fuel Moisture Thresholds in the Flammability of Calluna vulgaris
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Managed and wild fires play a significant role in the ecology of heathlands in the UK but we currently have little ability to forecast fire behaviour or the likelihood of accidental wildfires. Like many shrubland fuel types, heathlands display significant structural complexity and the role of different fuel components in governing flammability has not been clear. Using a series of small, field-based ignition tests, we demonstrate the critical importance of the moisture content of dead fine fuels in the lower canopy for determining when sustaining fires in the vegetation canopy can develop. At moisture contents above c. 70% both spot and line ignitions failed but where moisture contents were less than c. 60% fires developed rapidly. The initial rate of spread of successful ignitions was primarily controlled by the moisture content of the lower canopy and the moss/litter layer. Models that predict the moisture content of elevated dead fuels and the moss litter layer are urgently needed in order to protect heathlands from wildfire and to allow forecasts of the suitability of conditions for prescribed burning to be developed.