Rate of spread of fires in Calluna vulgaris-dominated moorlands.

Published online
04 Nov 2009
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Davies, G. M. & Legg, C. J. & Smith, A. A. & MacDonald, A. J.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
UK & Scotland


Calluna-dominated heaths occur throughout Europe but are in decline across their range. There is growing interest in using prescribed burning for their management, but environmental and social change will impact future fire regimes. Understanding fire behaviour is vital for the sustainable use of fire, but no robust models exist to inform management. Shrub fuels display complex fire behaviour. This is particularly true in UK moorlands which are unusual in their fuel structure and moisture regime, being dominated by live fuel and an oceanic climate. We burnt 27 experimental fires in the Scottish uplands during the legal burning season using a replicated experimental design. Plots were assigned to one of three commonly identified growth phases. We estimated a range of prefire fuel characteristics, including heterogeneity in fuel structure. We recorded wind speed and direction and estimated rate of spread (RoS). Redundancy analysis was used to investigate the relationship between fire behaviour parameters as a whole and control variables. Fuel structure and heterogeneity, wind speed and canopy fuel moisture content were strongly related to variation in fire behaviour. Best subsets regression was used to generate models of fire spread based on wind speed, vegetation height, canopy fuel moisture and an index of fuel heterogeneity. RoS was determined largely by wind speed, but this interacted strongly with vegetation structure. Changes in fuel horizontal continuity and vertical structure reduced rates of spread in low wind speeds. Synthesis and applications. Live fuel moisture and fuel heterogeneity play an important role in dampening fire behaviour, aspects of shrub fuels that have previously not been examined in detail. Careful use of fire for moorland management increases habitat diversity and creates fire-safe landscapes. Escaped prescribed fires burn large areas, homogenize landscapes and have severe impacts on ecosystem services. The complex relationship between fuel structure and wind speed implies that changes in behaviour can be rapid and unexpected. Models can be used to assess fire hazard prior to prescribed burning and to choose fuels that can be burnt safely under prevailing or forecast conditions.

Key words