Plant traits linked to field-scale flammability metrics in prescribed burns in Eucalyptus forest

by Bianca J. Tumino, Thomas J. Duff, Jason Q. D. Goodger, Jane G. Cawson

Vegetation is a key determinant of wildfire behaviour at field scales as it functions as fuel. Past studies in the laboratory show that plant flammability, the ability of plants to ignite and maintain combustion, is a function of their traits. However, the way the traits of individual plants combine in a vegetation community to affect field flammability has received little attention. This study aims to bridge the gap between the laboratory and field by linking plant traits to metrics of field-scale flammability. Across three prescribed burns, in Eucalyptus-dominated damp and dry forest, we measured pre-burn plant species abundance and post-burn field flammability metrics (percentage area burnt, char and scorch height). For understory species with dominant cover-abundance, we measured nine traits that had been demonstrated to influence flammability in the laboratory. We used fourth-corner ordination to evaluate covariation between the plant traits, species abundance and flammability. We found that several traits covaried at the species level. In some instances, these traits (e.g. specific leaf area and bulk density) could have cumulative effects on the flammability of a species while in other instances (e.g. moisture and specific leaf area) they may have counteractive effects, assuming trait effects on flammability are akin to previous research. At field scales, species with similar traits tended to co-occur, suggesting that the effects of individual traits accumulate within a plant community. Fourth-corner analyses found the trait-field flammability relationship to be statistically significant. Traits significantly associated with increasing field flammability metrics were: bulk density (negatively associated) and hydrocarbon quantity, specific leaf area and surface area to volume ratio (all positively associated). Our study demonstrates that some traits known to influence flammability in the laboratory can be associated with field-scale flammability metrics. Further research is needed to isolate the contributions of individual traits to understand how species composition drives forest flammability.

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