Effects of overstory composition and prescribed fire on fuel loading across a heterogeneous managed landscape in the southeastern USA
In the southeastern USA, land use history, forest management and natural geomorphic features have created heterogeneous fuel loads. This apparent temporal and spatial variation in fuel loads make it difficult to reliably assess potential fire behavior from remotely sensed canopy variables to determine risk and to prescribe treatments. We examined this variation by exploring the relationships between overstory forest vegetation attributes, recent fire history, and selected surface fuel components across an 80,000 ha contiguous landscape. Measurements of dead and live vegetation components of surface fuels were obtained from 624 permanent plots, or about 1 plot per 100 ha of forest cover. Within forest vegetation groups, we modeled the relationship between individual surface fuel components and overstory stand age, basal area, site quality and recent fire history, then stochastically predicted fuel loads across the landscape using the same linkage variables. The fraction of the plot variation, i.e., R2, explained by predictive models for individual fuel components ranged from 0.05 to 0.66 for dead fuels and 0.03 to 0.97 for live fuels in pine dominated vegetation groups. Stand age and basal area were generally more important than recent fire history for predicting fuel loads. Mapped fuel loads using these regressor variables showed a very heterogeneous landscape even at the scale of a few square kilometers. The mapped patterns corresponded to stand based forest management disturbances that are reflected in age, basal area, and fire history. Recent fire history was significant in explaining variation in litter and duff biomass. Stand basal area was positively and consistently related to dead fuel biomass in most groups and was present in many predictive equations. Patterns in live fuel biomass were related to recent fire history, but the patterns were not consistent among forest vegetation groups. Age and basal area were related to live fuels in a complex manner that is likely confounded with periodic disturbances that disrupt stand dynamics. This study complements earlier hazardous fuels research in the southeastern USA, and indicates that succession, disturbance, site quality and decomposition interact with forest management practices to create variable spatial and temporal conditions. The inclusion of additional land use, disturbance history, and soil-topographic variables coupled to improved sampling methods may increase precision and subsequent fuel mapping.