Habitat or fuel? Implications of long-term, post-fire dynamics for the development of key resources for fauna and fire.
Managing fire to achieve hazard reduction while providing for biodiversity conservation is complex in fire-prone regions. This challenge is exacerbated by limited understanding of post-fire changes in habitat and fuel attributes over time-scales commensurate with their development, and a paucity of empirical research integrating the effects of fire on these attributes. We used a 110-year post-fire chronosequence to investigate temporal development in habitat resources used by fauna, and fuels for fire in semi-arid Mallee vegetation, south-eastern Australia. Fire-history mapping previously limited investigation to 35 years post-fire. The patterns of temporal change over 110 years for 13 variables, representing key attributes of habitat and fuel, were explored using nonlinear mixed models and data from 549 sites. Most habitat and fuel attributes exhibited changes in abundance and rate of development over extended periods, emphasizing the importance of documenting post-fire dynamics over long time-frames. Further, developmental patterns were mostly nonlinear, indicating that a shorter temporal perspective (e.g. 20-30 years post-fire) may obscure, or provide an inaccurate understanding of, long-term changes. There were striking differences in the post-fire dynamics of some habitat and fuel attributes. Leaf litter and spinifex grass Triodia scariosa, which function as both habitat and fuel, increased rapidly after fire followed by a plateau or slow decline after 20-30 years. In contrast, live tree stems were not predicted to develop hollows until 40 years, after which time the density of live hollow-bearing stems, an important habitat feature, increased steadily. Synthesis and applications. Fire affects the development and abundance of resources over substantially longer periods than can be examined using fire-mapping based on satellite imagery. Our results demonstrate that post-fire changes in mallee vegetation influence fire hazard and faunal habitat in different ways. Critically, the cover/abundance of most primary fuel sources did not increase substantially beyond around 30 years post-fire; whereas important habitat attributes changed in ways that affect faunal occurrence for over a century. Fire management must explicitly acknowledge the potential for fire to affect fauna and fuel differently, and for these effects to operate over time-frames that may extend well beyond current understanding.