Fire exclusion in eastern North American Quercus–Carya woodlands has resulted in overstory compositional changes, linked to altered fuel composition, structure, and ultimately, altered fire regimes. These compositional changes have been implicated in a dampening effect on fire behavior in formerly fire-prone ecosystems, the positive feedback termed “mesophication.” Several proposed mechanisms are likely involved in this process; however, few have been examined. We evaluated the potential mechanism of dampened forest floor flammability through changes in litter composition in a southeastern U.S. oak–hickory forest undergoing mesophication. Laboratory drying and burning experiments revealed that increasing the relative contribution of litter from fire-sensitive mesophytic tree species ( Liquidambar styraciflua , Ulmus alata , and Cornus florida ) increased moisture retention and diminished litter flammability. Litterbeds composed of ≥66% mesophyte litter gained the most moisture following fuelbed saturation and were consistently wetter than pyrophyte litter following 12 and 24 h of drying. Flammability metrics decreased with increasing contribution of mesophyte litter with reductions most pronounced under more moist conditions. Under dry conditions, where litter moisture did not differ across compositional treatments, mesophyte litter was less flammable than fuelbeds that contained any pyrophyte litter. The combined effects of moisture retention and less flammable litter reveal an important synergistic impact that may result with increased dominance of fire-sensitive mesophytic species. Restoration efforts in long-unburned eastern hardwood forests may require altering stand composition to limit mesophytic litter input or developing burn prescriptions that intensify surface fire behavior in less flammable fuels.
Energy, Environment Protection, Nuclear Power Engineering