Photo Guide to Fuel Loads in the Southern Appalachians

cover of the publication
Fuel loads in each of the guide’s 74 photos have been carefully tallied. Managers can use the photos to plan prescribed fires.

A new photo guide shows fuel loads in the Southern Appalachian mountains.

A team of four experts wrote the guide: Adam Coates, a professor at Virginia Tech; Tom Waldrop, a USDA Forest Service research forester who is now retired; Todd Hutchinson, a research ecologist at the Northern Research Station; and Helen Mohr, an SRS forester and director of the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists.

A century ago, fire suppression seemed like a good thing that made people safer and preserved timber resources. But without fire, forests have changed. Many Southern Appalachian forests teem with vegetation – big trees, small trees, dead trees, shrubs, vines.

Prescribed fire can restore these ecosystems. But land managers planning a prescribed fire need to be able to estimate the amount of fuel present.

“Managers and scientists have long wished for a reference tool to help assess fuel loads in the Southern Appalachian mountains,” says Mohr. Enter the new photo guide, the first developed specifically for the region.

The guide has 74 photos that depict different fuel loads. It includes instructions on how to select a reference photograph, and how to use the fuel loading information when planning a prescribed fire.

The photos are grouped by aspect, the compass direction a slope faces. Slopes that face south are sunnier than those facing north, which leads to different plant communities and different fuel loads.

a scene from the book
Prescribed fire is used to restore ecosystems, prepare land for planting, improve wildlife habitat, control unwanted plant species, or consume fuels that might otherwise feed a wildfire that could threaten people’s lives or properties.

The photos are also organized by elevation. “We organized the book into 12 combinations of aspect and elevation,” says Mohr. “Aspect and elevation, alone or in combination, are known to affect forest composition and fuel loading.”

The team selected 74 photographs that show a range of coarse woody debris. Some photos show how fuel loads are affected by ecozone, stand density, and cover of two woody ericaceous shrubs, rhododendron and mountain laurel.

The photos are sourced from 705 research plots that were established for a previous study on fuels in the southern Appalachians. The plots were located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, the Chattooga River Ranger District of Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, or the Nantahala Ranger District of Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.

At each plot, the researchers inventoried fuels. They tallied dead trees, branches, and other woody debris – along with their size and how they would respond to changes in temperature and relative humidity. They also calculated the litter depth, duff depth, and fuel bed height.

The forest stands shown in the guide have not been actively managed for at least ten years. None of the stands have downed branches or other fuels left behind after logging, nor insect and disease outbreaks that killed large numbers of trees. Photos were taken during fall or winter, when plants are mostly dormant.

Although the photos in the guide cannot represent every possible fuel load condition, the guide promises to be an extremely useful resource for land managers or anyone planning a prescribed fire.

Access the full text of the guide.

For more information or to order a copy of the guide, email Helen Mohr at helen.mohr@usda.gov.

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