Needle Senescence Affects Fire Behavior in Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis Mill.) Stands: A Simulation Study


Abstract: Research Highlights: Pre-programmed cell death in old Aleppo pine needles leads to low moisture contents in the forest canopy in July, the time when fire activity nears its peak in the Western Mediterranean Basin. Here, we show, for the first time, that such needle senescence may increase fire behavior and thus is a potential mechanism explaining why the bulk of the annual burned area in the region occurs in early summer. Background and Objectives: The brunt of the fire season in the Western Mediterranean Basin occurs at the beginning of July, when live fuel moisture content is near its maximum. Here, we test whether a potential explanation to this conundrum lies in Aleppo pine needle senescence, a result of pre-programmed cell death in 3-years-old needles, which typically occurs in the weeks preceding the peak in the burned area. Our objective was to simulate the effects of needle senescence on fire behavior. Materials and Methods: We simulated the effects of needle senescence on canopy moisture and structure. Fire behavior was simulated across different phenological scenarios and for two highly contrasting Aleppo pine stand structures, a forest, and a shrubland. Wildfire behavior simulations were done with BehavePlus6 across a wide range of wind speeds and of dead fine surface fuel moistures. Results: The transition from surface to passive crown fire occurred at lower wind speeds under simulated needle senescence in the forest and in the shrubland. Transitions to active crown fire only occurred in the shrubland under needle senescence. Maximum fire intensity and severity were always recorded in the needle senescence scenario. Conclusions: Aleppo pine needle senescence may enhance the probability of crown fire development at the onset of the fire season, and it could partly explain the concentration of fire activity in early July in the Western Mediterranean Basin.