How do fire behavior and fuel consumption vary between dormant and early growing season prescribed burns in the southern Appalachian Mountains?


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Background Despite the widespread use of prescribed fire throughout much of the southeastern USA, temporal considerations of fire behavior and its effects often remain unclear. Opportunities to burn within prescriptive meteorological windows vary seasonally and along biogeographical gradients, particularly in mountainous terrain where topography can alter fire behavior. Managers often seek to expand the number of burn days available to accomplish their management objectives, such as hazardous fuel reduction, control of less desired vegetation, and wildlife habitat establishment and maintenance. For this study, we compared prescribed burns conducted in the dormant and early growing seasons in the southern Appalachian Mountains to evaluate how burn outcomes may be affected by environmental factors related to season of burn. The early growing season was defined as the narrow phenological window between bud break and full leaf-out. Proportion of plot area burned, surface fuel consumption, and time-integrated thermocouple heating were quantified and evaluated to determine potential relationships with fuel moisture and topographic and meteorological variables.

            Our results suggested that both time-integrated thermocouple heating and its variability were greater in early growing season burns than in dormant season burns. These differences were noted even though fuel consumption did not vary by season of burn. The variability of litter consumption and woody fuelbed height reduction were greater in dormant season burns than in early growing season burns. Warmer air temperatures and lower fuel moisture, interacting with topography, likely contributed to these seasonal differences and resulted in more burn coverage in early growing season burns than in dormant season burns.

            Dormant season and early growing season burns in southern Appalachian forests consumed similar amounts of fuel where fire spread. Notwithstanding, warmer conditions in early growing season burns are likely to result in fire spread to parts of the landscape left unburnt in dormant season burns. We conclude that early growing season burns may offer a viable option for furthering the pace and scale of prescribed fire to achieve management objectives.




Fire Ecology. 2021 Oct 26;17(1):27