Eucalypts, especially blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), have been extensively planted in Portugal and nowadays dominate most of its forest landscapes. Large-scale forestation programs can intensify fire activity, and blue gum plantations are often viewed as highly flammable due to the nature and structure of the fuel complex. The role of eucalypt plantations in the fire regime of Mediterranean climate regions is increasingly debated following the recent catastrophic wildfires in Portugal and elsewhere. In this study we examined the effects of eucalypt forestation on burned area (BA), fire size, and fire severity in Portugal. This was based on fire and vegetation mapping and statistics, fire weather data, satellite imagery, and national forest inventory data. Eucalypt BA comprised an average of 12.5% of total BA (1980-2017) and did not increase over time and with eucalypt expansion. Eucalypt metrics did not explain interannual BA variability after accounting for the effects of other variables. Forest fires started within eucalypt stands were the least likely to become large, and large fire size was irresponsive to forest composition. Likewise, forest type was a generally minor influence in mega-fire severity and accounted for just 1.4-8.6% of surface fuel-hazard metrics variation. In general, large-scale conversion of maritime pine to eucalypt stands (1970-2015) implied lower fuel accumulation. Fire activity results are consistent with fuel hazard results and express trade-offs between short-rotation forestry and fire behaviour in blue gum stands, with high spotting potential versus modest crown fire likelihood. We found no support for the contention of a modified fire regime as a result of eucalypt forestation in Portugal, but the rising undermanaged and abandoned blue gum estate, especially after large-fire seasons, is a concern for the future. However, it remains to be determined whether post-fire eucalypt regrowth is a higher fire threat than native vegetation in the same context.
Keywords: Fire severity; Forest plantations; Land cover change; Mediterranean climate; Wildfire.
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