The effect of fire season, fire frequency, rainfall and management on fire intensity in savanna vegetation in South Africa.
Fire is important for the maintenance and conservation of African savanna ecosystems. Despite the importance of fire intensity as a key element of the fire regime, it is seldom measured or included in fire records. We estimated fire intensity in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, by documenting fuel loads, fuel moisture contents, rates of fire spread and the heat yields of fuel in 956 experimental plot burns over 21 years. Individual fires were conducted in five different months (February, April, August, October and December) and at five different return intervals (1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 years). Estimated fire intensities ranged from 28 to 17 905 kW m-1. Fire season had a significant effect on fire intensity. Mean fire intensities were lowest in summer fires (1225 kW m-1), increased in autumn fires (1724 kW m-1) and highest in winter fires (2314 kW m-1); they were associated with a threefold difference between the mean moisture content of grass fuels in winter (28%) and summer (88%). Mean fuel loads increased with post-fire age, from 2964 kg ha-1 on annually burnt plots to 3972 kg ha-1 on biennial, triennial and quadrennial burnt plots (which did not differ significantly), but decreased to 2881 kg ha-1 on sexennial burnt plots. Fuel loads also increased with increasing rainfall over the previous 2 years. Mean fire intensities showed no significant differences between annual burns and burns in the biennial, triennial and quadrennial categories, despite lower fuel loads in annual burns, suggesting that seasonal fuel moisture effects overrode those of fuel load. Mean fire intensity in sexennial burns was less than half that of other burns (638 vs. 1969 kW m-1). We used relationships between season of fire, fuel loads and fire intensity in conjunction with the park's fire records to reconstruct broad fire intensity regimes. Changes in management from regular controlled burning to 'natural' fires over the past four decades have resulted in a decrease in moderate-intensity fires and an increase in high-intensity fires. The highest fire intensities measured in our study (11 000->17 500 kW m-1) were significantly higher than those previously reported for African savannas, but were similar to those in South American cerrado vegetation. The mean fire intensity for late dry season (winter) fires in our study was less than half that reported for late dry season fires in savannas in northern Australia. Synthesis and applications. Fire intensity has important effects on savanna vegetation, especially on the dynamics of the tree layer. Fire intensity varies with season (because of differences in fuel moisture) as well as with fuel load. Managers of African savannas can manipulate fire intensity by choosing the season of fire, and further by burning in years with higher or lower fuel loads. The basic relationships described here can also be used to enhance fire records, with a view to building a long-term data set for the ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of fire management.