Sketches of fire


All volumes of New Phytologist are available on line (Wiley Online Library from the first issue published in 1902. Online searches can therefore uncover all manner of surprises and trends, such as how editorial views have changed over time, or how current and highly visible topics have a long history. The use of the word ‘Sketches’ in the title of this editorial directly relates to its use by F. E. Weiss in a number of articles about vegetation over a century ago, with the general title of Sketches of vegetation at home and abroad. One particular article in 1906 (Weiss, 1906) discussed the importance of fire in vegetation. This case was for South African vegetation in Natal and the Transvaal districts and was the first paper in New Phytologist to refer to the importance of fire in vegetation. One example was a species of Vellozia that was fire resistant and the other example was the human use of fire as a management tool. Fire was used to reduce tick infestations of cattle in the veld but had led to unwanted losses of trees in the landscape, which Weiss concluded would reduce the water storing capacity of the area.

Moving on 100 yr has seen a significant increase in the number of New Phytologist papers concerned with fire but what of the range of topics? Analysis over the last few years (Fig. 1) indicates that the plant and the ecosystem (‘vegetation’ in Weiss, 1906) are still the two main systems investigated. The structural and life history characteristics that enable fire resistance remain entertaining and diverse (Romero et al., 2009; Clarke et al., 2010) and the stimulation of seed germination by fire (Ojeda et al., 2005) adds to this diversity.

Figure 1.

Major topics associated with fire published in New Phytologist from 2005 to 2010.

The potential to reduce water availability in ecosystems subjected to fire, as suggested by Weiss, has now been supplemented by many more axes to his sketch (Ravi et al., 2009). This includes the potential to enhance alien invasion (Stevens & Beckage, 2009), benefitting from enhanced nutrient availability immediately post-fire, but contrasting with longer term negative impacts of high intensity fires on mycorrhizal diversity (Bastias et al., 2006). Fire management, at a time of concern over ever-increasing CO2 emissions, has now moved to be actively concerned with managing carbon benefits (Bradstock & Williams, 2009). Quantifying carbon losses at the regional and global scale often unify the two drivers of fire and drought (da Costa et al., 2010; Hirota et al., 2010) and have become fertile ground for the global-scale application of remote sensing techniques (Asner & Alencar, 2010). These ecosystem drivers are central to prescribing the global distribution of savanna vegetation but insufficient as yet to unify our understanding of the controls of savanna distribution on all continents (Lehmann et al., 2009).

Continued global warming is likely to increase the geographical spread of fire risk in ecosystems of the world. If this spreads to major ecosystems, such as tropical forests (Galbraith et al., 2010), then this will not only increase the potential for future warming through enhanced release of CO2, but it will also have negative impacts on diversity (Stevens & Beckage, 2009). Yet more reasons, if they were needed, to reduce global carbon emissions.