Prescribed burning consumes key forest structural components: implications for landscape heterogeneity Academic Article uri icon


  • Prescribed burning to achieve management objectives is a common practice in fire-prone regions worldwide. Structural components of habitat that are combustible and slow to develop are particularly susceptible to change associated with prescribed burning. We used an experimental, "whole-landscape" approach to investigate the effect of differing patterns of prescribed burning on key habitat components (logs, stumps, dead trees, litter cover, litter depth, and understorey vegetation). Twenty-two landscapes (each ~100 ha) were selected in a dry forest ecosystem in southeast Australia. Experimental burns were conducted in 16 landscapes (stratified by burn extent) while six served as untreated controls. We measured habitat components prior to and after burning. Landscape burn extent ranged from 22% to 89% across the 16 burn treatments. With the exception of dead standing trees (no change), all measures of habitat components declined as a consequence of burning. The degree of loss increased as the extent to which a landscape was burned also increased. Prescribed burning had complex effects on the spatial heterogeneity (beta diversity) of structural components within landscapes. Landscapes that were more heterogeneous pre-fire were homogenized by burning, while those that were more homogenous pre-fire tended to display greater differentiation post-burning. Thus, the notion that patch mosaic burning enhances heterogeneity at the landscape-scale depends on prior conditions. These findings have important management implications. Where prescribed burns must be undertaken, effects on important resources can be moderated via control of burn characteristics (e.g., burn extent). Longer-term impacts of prescribed burning will be strongly influenced by the return interval, given the slow rate at which some structural components accumulate (decades to centuries). Management of habitat structural components is important given the critical role they play in (1) provision of habitat resources for diverse organisms, (2) retention of moisture and nutrients in otherwise dry, low-productivity systems, and (3) carbon storage.

publication date

  • 2017