Fuels, vegetation, and prescribed fire dynamics influence ash production and characteristics in a diverse landscape under active pine barrens restoration
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Background: An important consequence of wildland fire is the production of ash, defined as a continuum of mineral to charred organic residues formed by the burning of wildland fuels. Ash may impact soil health depending on its elemental composition and other factors, which are influenced by fuel quantity and quality, and by combustion completeness. To investigate how ash properties relate to variation in fuels and fire, we collected and analyzed ash samples following prescribed fires in a pine barrens landscape spanning grassland, shrubland, conifer woodland, and deciduous forest. At some plots, mechanical brush cutting was applied, and woody fuels were added or removed to experimentally manipulate fuel loads. Results: Ash load averaged 2 Mg ha−1, or approximately 12.5% of fuel consumption, and was positively related to maximum temperatures estimated by temperature-sensitive paint tags. Ash load also increased in cut brush and fuel addition treatments. Fuel consumption in grasslands, estimated from maximum paint tag temperatures by calibration, was increased by woody fuel addition. Total nutrient stocks in ash was greatest at conifer sites (i.e., nitrogen, N; phosphorus, P; potassium, K; magnesium, Mg; and iron, Fe) and lowest at grassland sites (P; K; calcium, Ca; Mg; and manganese, Mn). Concentrations of leachable nutrients in ash were high for cations Ca (>20 g kg−1), K (>4 g kg−1), and Mg (>5 g kg−1), which resulted in high ash pH (mean ± standard error = 8.4 ± 0.1). Leachable cations were positively related to total ash cation concentrations, but leachable metal concentrations (Fe; Mn; copper, Cu) were low despite their high content in ash. Conclusions: We observed differences in ash production and composition that corresponded to variation in vegetation cover, fuel loads, and paint tag temperatures. High concentrations of leachable cations in ash suggested that repeated prescribed fire may act to decrease cation availability in soils if cations are leached through sandy soils over time. In the case of pine barrens, prescribed fires, which decrease carbon (C) stocks while producing high concentrations of leachable nutrients in ash, may contribute to decreased soil nutrient stocks, and more limited tree growth, thus helping to maintain and restore critically endangered barrens ecosystems.
Quigley, K.M.; Wildt, R.E.; Sturtevant, B.R.; Kolka, R.K.; Dickinson, M.B.; Kern, C.C.; Donner, D.M.; Miesel, J.R. 2019. Fuels, vegetation, and prescribed fire dynamics influence ash production and characteristics in a diverse landscape under active pine barrens restoration. Fire Ecology. 15(1): 15p. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42408-018-0015-7.