Flammability dynamics in the Australian Alps
Abstract Forests of the Australian Alps (SE Australia) are considered some of the most vulnerable to climate change in the country, with ecosystem collapse considered likely for some due to frequent fire. It is not yet known, however, whether increasing fire frequency may stabilize due to reductions in flammability related to reduced time for fuel accumulation, show no trend, or increase due to positive feedbacks related to vegetation changes. To determine what these trends have been historically, dynamics were measured for 58 years of mapped fire history. The 1.4 million ha forested area was divided into broad formations based on structure and dominant canopy trees, and dynamics were measured for each using flammability ratio, a modification of probability of ignition at a point. Crown fire likelihood was measured for each formation, based on satellite‐derived measurements of the 2003 fire effects across a large part of the area. Contrary to popular perception but consistent with mechanistic expectations, all forests exhibited pronounced positive feedbacks. The strongest response was observed in tall, wet forests dominated by Ash‐type eucalypts, where, despite a short period of low flammability following fire, post‐disturbance stands have been more than eight times as likely to burn than have mature stands. The weakest feedbacks occurred in open forest, although post‐disturbance forests were still 1.5 times as likely to burn as mature forests. Apart from low, dry open woodland where there was insufficient data to detect a trend, all forests were most likely to experience crown fire during their period of regeneration. The implications of this are significant for the Alps, as increasing fire frequency has the potential to accelerate by producing an increasingly flammable landscape. These effects may be semi‐permanent in tall, wet forest, where frequent fire promotes ecosystem collapse into either the more flammable open forest formation, or to heathland.
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