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Effects of weather, fuel and terrain on fire severity in topographically diverse landscapes of south-eastern Australia

Abstract

The effects of weather, terrain, fuels on fire severity were compared using remote sensing of the severity of two large fires in south-eastern Australian forests. The probability of contrasting levels of fire severity (fire confined to the understorey vs. tree canopies consumed) was analysed using logistic regression. These severities equate to extremes of fire intensity (<1,500 vs. >10,000 kW m−1), consequent suppression potential (high vs. nil) and potential adverse ecological impacts on vertebrate fauna and soils (low vs. high). Weather was the major influence on fire severity. Crown fire was absent under non-extreme weather and but more likely under extreme weather, particularly on ridges in vegetation unburnt for >10 years. Crown fire probability was very low in recently burnt vegetation (1–5 years) and increased at higher fuel ages. In all cases, fire severity was lower in valleys, probably due to effects of wind protection and higher fuel moisture in moderating fire behaviour. Under non-extreme weather, fires are likely to be suppressible and burn heterogeneously, due to the influence of topographic position, slope and fuel load. Under extreme weather, fires are influenced only by fuel and topographic position, and probability of suppression on accessible ridges will be low except in recently burnt (i.e. 1–5 year old) fuels. Topographically imposed variation may mitigate adverse ecological effects on arboreal fauna and soil erosion potential.

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Acknowledgments

This project was supported by a research grant (2004/RD/0104) from the Environmental Trust NSW. Substantial in kind support was provided by the Department of Environment and Climate Change (NSW) and the Sydney Catchment Authority (provision of remote sensing data). Stefan Maier provided advice on use of remote sensing for detection of fire boundaries and hotspots. Michael Bedward and Geoff Gordon provided advice on analyses. Two reviewers provided constructive comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to R. A. Bradstock.

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Bradstock, R.A., Hammill, K.A., Collins, L. et al. Effects of weather, fuel and terrain on fire severity in topographically diverse landscapes of south-eastern Australia. Landscape Ecol 25, 607–619 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-009-9443-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-009-9443-8

Keywords

  • Fire intensity
  • Fire suppression
  • Fire regimes
  • Prescribed burning
  • Ecological effects