1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences
AN EXAMINATION OF THE HEAT OF COMBUSTION OF DECIDUOUS TREE LEAF LITTER AND HOW IT RELATES TO FIRE ECOLOGY
Several discussions have occurred in the literature dealing with traits of fire-dependent plant communities which confer upon them increased fire frequency and intensity. A study was conducted to determine if the leaves of fire-dependent tree species produce greater amounts of heat when burned than those of non-fire-dependent species. Preliminary results suggest that, within the limits of the heat detection methods used, all species produced similar amounts of heat when burned. A planned refinement of the methods may reveal a finer scale temperature difference between fire-dependent and non-fire-dependent species.
Mutch (1970) has hypothesized that "if species have developed reproductive mechanisms (underground rhizomes, root sprouting, serotinous cones) and anatomical mechanisms (thick bark, epicormic sprouting) to survive periodic fires, then fire dependent plants might also possess characteristics obtained through natural selection that actually enhance the flammability of these communities," thereby, allowing these fire tolerent species to suppress or eliminate fire intolerant competitors. There has been debate over this hypothesis (Snyder, 1984, Buckley, 1984) as to whether increased flammability is selected for or if it is a secondary effect of other characteristics related to environmental conditions such as moisture loss and herbivory. Flammability of fuels can refer to the ease with which they ignite, the speed at which flames spreads, and the heat produced upon burning. The flammability of a particular genus or species is a relative value depending upon the community in which they are found. Oak and pine are two important forest types that are dependent on natural and anthropogenic fire in North America (Pyne, 1982). In southeastern communities where pine and oak are both present, pines appear to be more flammable than oaks under certain conditions (Platt, et al, 1991). However, in the Midwest, where oak communities often dominate without pines, oaks are thought to possess greater flammability than other deciduous associates (Lorimer, 1987).
Most fire dependent communities are made up of one or a few species responsible for the flammability of the community (Snyder, 1984). In healthy oak communities, the flammability of the site is a combination of the oak leaf litter in addition to several graminoid fuel species. However, in degraded oak woodlands and savannas where the herbaceous layer has been suppressed due to shading, the oak leaf litter and that of non-oak tree species provides most of the fuel.
Oak trees have evolved characteristics which provide them with a greater ability to survive fire. Protection from temperature rise at the cambium layer is dependent only on bark thickness (Vines, 1968). Oaks generally have thicker bark than most other deciduous tree species with the thickest bark occuring in bur oaks which were exposed most frequently to prairie fires (Lorimer, 1987, Curtis, 1969). In addition, most oaks also have the ability to resprout from dormant buds at the base when the top has been killed by fire (Lorimer, 1987). If the hypothesis of Mutch (1970) is valid, and oaks, being a fire adapted genus have selected these adaptations in response to fire, it would then seem likely that increased flammability of oak leaf litter over other deciduous tree species might also be likely. Therefore, it was the purpose of this investigation to examine the heat production of fire tolerant and intolerant deciduous leaf litter to see if fire-tolerant species possess increased flammability in terms of greater heat production as compared to non-tolerant species.
Heat Production - The Fuel
The results obtained suggest that there has been no selection for increased heat production during the combustion of leaves of the fire dependent species examined. Under the artificial conditions of this experiment, the leaves of all the tree species studied have the potential of burning at temperatures lethal to cambium tissue (60 C 140 F)( Hare, 1965). Cole, et al, (1992) found LD50 temperatures for small trees (2.5 5.0 cm dbh) to be 183 C and for medium trees (5.0 10.0 cm dbh) to be 366 C.
Although all litter samples were burned in the same sized wire enclosures, it is possible that the surface area provided was not sufficient to allow for the chemical reactions of combustion to stabilize before contacting the temperature indicators. Mutch (1970) suggests that fuel chemistry may have a chainlike additive effect when burned. If sufficient time wasn't allowed for these chemical processes to evolve during the burning, maximum energy release may not have been achieved. This could have been tested for by having larger enclosures to allow for longer burn times before contact with the temperature indicators.
While a greater energy release for fire dependent species was not observed, it is likely that other characteristics of fire dependent species leaf litter add to the flammability of these species over nondependent species. The tan in content of oak leaves makes them less palatable to herbivores (Ricklefs, 1973). As a result these leaves may last longer in the environment providing a fuel source over a longer period of time than is the case with some of the non-dependant species such as maple. The open structure of oak communities resulting from fire permits greater insulation and air movement. These drier conditions would also permit oak leaves to persist for longer periods of time. The ability of oak leaves to curl in spring after snow melt is cited as a feature important to flammability (Lorimer, 1987). This ability to curl upon drying in oak leaves is opposed to the limp, matted condition found in maple leaves (Packard, 1987).
Although this experiment suggests that the leaf litter of fire dependent species examined in this study have not selected for greater energy release upon burning, it is believed that the length of time which the leaves of fire dependent species remain as a potential fuel along with other characteristics related to climate and herbivory impart a greater flammability on these species.
Acknowledgments I wish to thank Heather Hagg for assistance while working on this study as part of a science fair project. I also would like to thank David Sollenberger for assistance in conducting the burns and for recording aspects of the study on film.
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