• Born to burn: characterizing fuel loads, flammability and plant traits across spatio-temporal gradients of black spruce dominated communities

      Grzesik, Emilia J.; Ruess, Roger; Hollingsworth, Teresa; Turetsky, Merritt (2020-12)
      The flammability of black spruce forests is influenced by the fuel loadings and quality of fuels within a site, whereas the ability of a site to self-replace after fire, and thus forest resiliency, depends on the fire-ecological trait attributes of the plant community. Black spruce plant communities have been undergoing self-replacement succession from low to moderate severity fires for thousands of years, however, recent intensification of interior Alaska's fire regime is leading to shifts in post-fire successional trajectories, resulting in many ecological implications. This study focuses on understanding the variation in black spruce forest flammability, based on fuel load quantity and quality, and fire-ecological plant traits in 28 black spruce dominated sites ranging across age and moisture gradients in interior Alaska. I quantified tree canopy, understory and below-ground fuel loads, developed models to predict fuel loads and then utilized my measurements of above-ground fuel load quantity and quality to calculate a site-level flammability index. Based on my analyses, significantly greater flammability indices, and thus burning potential, occur in sites greater than 34 years in age, at elevations greater than 302 m and with dry site moisture, which are representative of dry, nonacidic upland black spruce and dry, acidic upland black spruce-lichen forest ecosystems. Furthermore, although fire-ecological plant trait attributes of Hylocomium splendens and Vaccinium uliginosum vary with age and moisture gradients, the amount of intra-specific trait variation within a site could not be explained by stand age or moisture and thus forest resiliency is also likely independent of age and moisture gradients. Further research is necessary to explore both abiotic and biotic explanatory variables related to intra-specific plant trait variation to better understand variation in black spruce forest resiliency on the landscape. The results from this study can assist fire managers in the prediction of black spruce forest burning potential and its vulnerability to ecosystem shift post-fire.