Linking forest flammability and plant vulnerability to drought


Globally, fire regimes are being altered by changing climatic conditions. New fire regimes have the potential to drive species extinctions and cause ecosystem state changes, with a range of consequences for ecosystem services. Despite the co-occurrence of forest fires with drought, current approaches to modelling flammability largely overlook the large body of research into plant vulnerability to drought. Here, we outline the mechanisms through which plant responses to drought may affect forest flammability, specifically fuel moisture and the ratio of dead to live fuels. We present a framework for modelling live fuel moisture content (moisture content of foliage and twigs) from soil water content and plant traits, including rooting patterns and leaf traits such as the turgor loss point, osmotic potential, elasticity and leaf mass per area. We also present evidence that physiological drought stress may contribute to previously observed fuel moisture thresholds in south-eastern Australia. Of particular relevance is leaf cavitation and subsequent shedding, which transforms live fuels into dead fuels, which are drier, and thus easier to ignite. We suggest that capitalising on drought research to inform wildfire research presents a major opportunity to develop new insights into wildfires, and new predictive models of seasonal fuel dynamics.