Effects of spatial heterogeneity in moisture content on the horizontal spread of peat fires

Sci Total Environ. 2016 Dec 1;572:1422-1430. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.145. Epub 2016 Apr 20.


The gravimetric moisture content of peat is the main factor limiting the ignition and spread propagation of smouldering fires. Our aim is to use controlled laboratory experiments to better understand how the spread of smouldering fires is influenced in natural landscape conditions where the moisture content of the top peat layer is not homogeneous. In this paper, we study for the first time the spread of peat fires across a spatial matrix of two moisture contents (dry/wet) in the laboratory. The experiments were undertaken using an open-top insulated box (22×18×6cm) filled with milled peat. The peat was ignited at one side of the box initiating smouldering and horizontal spread. Measurements of the peak temperature inside the peat, fire duration and longwave thermal radiation from the burning samples revealed important local changes of the smouldering behaviour in response to sharp gradients in moisture content. Both, peak temperatures and radiation in wetter peat (after the moisture gradient) were sensitive to the drier moisture condition (preceding the moisture gradient). Drier peat conditions before the moisture gradient led to higher temperatures and higher radiation flux from the fire during the first 6cm of horizontal spread into a wet peat patch. The total spread distance into a wet peat patch was affected by the moisture content gradient. We predicted that in most peat moisture gradients of relevance to natural ecosystems the fire self-extinguishes within the first 10cm of horizontal spread into a wet peat patch. Spread distances of more than 10cm are limited to wet peat patches below 160% moisture content (mass of water per mass of dry peat). We found that spatial gradients of moisture content have important local effects on the horizontal spread and should be considered in field and modelling studies.

Keywords: Breakpoint analysis; Infrared image analysis; Peatland; Propagation; Smouldering; Step-change.