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Keywords:

  • Australia;
  • climate;
  • fire regimes;
  • forest;
  • fuel;
  • global change;
  • ignition;
  • moisture;
  • woodlands

ABSTRACT

Aim  Patterns of fire regimes across Australia exhibit biogeographic variation in response to four processes. Variations in area burned and fire frequency result from differences in the rates of ‘switching’ of biomass growth, availability to burn, fire weather and ignition. Therefore differing processes limit fire (i.e. the lowest rate of switching) in differing ecosystems. Current and future trends in fire frequency were explored on this basis.

Location  Case studies of forests (cool temperate to tropical) and woodlands (temperate to arid) were examined. These represent a broad range of Australian biomes and current fire regimes.

Methods  Information on the four processes was applied to each case study and the potential minimum length of interfire interval was predicted and compared to current trends. The potential effects of global change on the processes were then assessed and future trends in fire regimes were predicted.

Results  Variations in fire regimes are primarily related to fluctuations in available moisture and dominance by either woody or herbaceous plant cover. Fire in woodland communities (dry climates) is limited by growth of herbaceous fuels (biomass), whereas in forests (wet climates) limitation is by fuel moisture (availability to burn) and fire weather. Increasing dryness in woodland communities will decrease potential fire frequency, while the opposite applies in forests. In the tropics, both forms of limitation are weak due to the annual wet/dry climate. Future change may therefore be constrained.

Main conclusions  Increasing dryness may diminish fire activity over much of Australia (dominance of dry woodlands), though increases may occur in temperate forests. Elevated CO2 effects may confound or reinforce these trends. The prognosis for the future fire regime in Australia is therefore uncertain.