Pine plantations and invasion alter fuel structure and potential fire behavior in a Patagonian forest-steppe ecotone

Paritsis J. et al., 2018. Forests

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Planted and invading non-native plant species can alter fire regimes through changes in fuel loads and in the structure and continuity of fuels, potentially modifying the flammability of native plant communities. Such changes are not easily predicted and deserve system-specific studies. In several regions of the southern hemisphere, exotic pines have been extensively planted in native treeless areas for forestry purposes and have subsequently invaded the native environments. However, studies evaluating alterations in flammability caused by pines in Patagonia are scarce. In the forest-steppe ecotone of northwestern Patagonia, we evaluated fine fuels structure and simulated fire behavior in the native shrubby steppe, pine plantations, pine invasions, and mechanically removed invasions to establish the relative ecological vulnerability of these forestry and invasion scenarios to fire. We found that pine plantations and their subsequent invasion in the Patagonian shrubby steppe produced sharp changes in fine fuel amount and its vertical and horizontal continuity. These changes in fuel properties have the potential to affect fire behavior, increasing fire intensity by almost 30 times. Pruning of basal branches in plantations may substantially reduce fire hazard by lowering the probability of fire crowning, and mechanical removal of invasion seems effective in restoring original fuel structure in the native community. The current expansion of pine plantations and subsequent invasions acting synergistically with climate warming and increased human ignitions warrant a highly vulnerable landscape in the near future for northwestern Patagonia if no management actions are undertaken.

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