Post-fire regeneration in alpine heathland: Does fire severity matter?



Fire severity is thought to be an important determinant of landscape patterns of post-fire regeneration, yet there have been few studies of the effects of variation in fire severity at landscape scales on floristic diversity and composition, and none within alpine vegetation. Understanding how fire severity affects alpine vegetation is important because fire is relatively infrequent in alpine environments. Globally, alpine ecosystems are at risk from climate change, which, in addition to warming, is likely to increase the severity and frequency of fire in south-eastern Australia. Here we examine the effects of variation in fire severity on plant diversity and vegetation composition, 5 years after the widespread fires of 2003. We used floristic data from two wide-spread vegetation types on the Bogong High Plains: open heathland and closed heathland. Three alternative models were tested relating variation in plant community attributes (e.g. diversity, ground cover of dominant species, amount of bare ground) to variation in fire severity. The models were (i) ‘linear’, attributes vary linearly with fire severity; (ii) ‘intermediate disturbance’, attributes are highest at intermediate fire severity and lowest at both low- and high-severity; and (iii) ‘null’, attributes are unaffected by fire severity. In both heathlands, there were few differences in floristic diversity, cover of dominant species and community composition, across the strong fire severity gradient. The null model was most supported in the vast majority of cases, with only limited support for either the linear and intermediate disturbance models. Our data indicate that in both heathlands, vegetation attributes in burnt vegetation were converging towards that of the unburnt state. We conclude that fire severity had little impact on post-fire regeneration, and that both closed and open alpine heathlands are resilient to variation in fire severity during landscape scale fires.