Repeated prescribed fires decrease stocks and change attributes of coarse woody debris in a temperate eucalypt forest

Ecol Appl. 2014 Jul;24(5):976-89. doi: 10.1890/13-1426.1.


Previous studies have found negligible effects of single prescribed fires on coarse woody debris (CWD), but the cumulative effects of repeated low-intensity prescribed fires are unknown. This represents a knowledge gap for environmental management because repeated prescribed fires are a key tool for mitigating wildfire risk, and because CWD is recognized as critical to forest biodiversity and functioning. We examined the effects of repeated low-intensity prescribed fires on the attributes and stocks of (fallen) CWD in a mixed-species eucalypt forest of temperate Australia. Prescribed fire treatments were a factorial combination of two seasons (Autumn, Spring) and two frequencies (three yearly High, 10 yearly Low), were replicated over five study areas, and involved two to seven low-intensity fires over 27 years. Charring due to prescribed fires variously changed carbon and nitrogen concentrations and C to N ratios of CWD pieces depending on decay class, but did not affect mean wood density. CWD biomass and C and N stocks were significantly less in Fire than Control treatments. Decreases in total CWD C stocks of -8 Mg/ha in Fire treatments were not balanced by minor increases in pyrogenic (char) C (-0.3 Mg/ha). Effects of prescribed fire frequency and season included significantly less C and N stocks in rotten CWD in High than Low frequency treatments, and in the largest CWD pieces in Autumn than Spring treatments. Our study demonstrates that repeated low-intensity prescribed fires have the potential to significantly decrease CWD stocks, in pieces of all sizes and particularly decayed pieces, and to change CWD chemical attributes. CWD is at best a minor stock of pyrogenic C under such fire regimes. These findings suggest a potential trade-off in the management of temperate eucalypt forests between sustained reduction of wildfire risk, and the consequences of decreased CWD C stocks, and of changes in CWD as a habitat and biogeochemical substrate. Nonetheless, negative impacts on CWD of repeated low-intensity prescribed fires could be lessened by fire intervals of 10 rather than three years (to decrease losses of decayed CWD), and fires in moist rather than dry conditions (to conserve large CWD).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Australia
  • Ecosystem
  • Fires*
  • Forests*
  • Trees
  • Wood