Effects of plant hydraulic traits on the flammability of live fine canopy fuels

Fiona R. Scarff*, Tanja Lenz, Anna E. Richards, Amy E. Zanne, Ian J. Wright, Mark Westoby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


1. Plant species vary in how they regulate moisture and this has implications for their flammability during wildfires. We explored how fuel moisture is shaped by variation within five hydraulic traits: saturated moisture content, cell wall rigidity, cell solute potential, symplastic water fraction and tissue capacitance. 

2. Using pressure–volume curves, we measured these hydraulic traits in twigs and distal shoots (i.e. twigs + leaves) in 62 plant species across four wooded communities in south-eastern Australia. Moisture content of fine fuels was then estimated for circumstances typical of fire weather. These projections were made assuming that under the hot, dry, windy conditions typical of large wildfires, leaves and fine twigs would function at internal water pressures close to wilting point (i.e. turgor loss point, TLP). The effect of different moisture contents at TLP on ignition time was then modelled using a fully mechanistic, finite element model of biomass ignition based on standard principles of physical chemistry. 

3. We also measured predawn water potential, an indication of plant access to soil water that is influenced by root architecture. These data were used to model how root traits influence fuel moisture and ignition time. 

4. Most variation among species in fuel moisture under fire weather conditions arose from differences in saturated moisture content (3.4- to 3.6-fold variation). Twig capacitance was also an important driver of fuel moisture under these weather conditions (1.9- to 2.2-fold variation in moisture content). A suite of other leaf and root traits influencing how much shoots dry out as they approach wilting point each contributed 1.0- to 1.6-fold variation in projected fuel moisture during fire weather. Fuel moisture variation in turn drove variation in flammability by modifying predicted ignition time. 

5. Two main life-history types in fire-prone habitats are obligate seeders and resprouters. There were no significant differences between these species groups in estimated fuel moisture during fire weather, nor in any measured hydraulic traits. 

6. Live fuel moisture is an important determinant of wildfire activity. Our data show that variation in tissue saturated moisture content among co-occurring species represents an important ecological store of variation in flammability in the study communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)835-846
Number of pages12
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number4
Early online date10 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • capacitance
  • flammability
  • fuel modelling
  • ignition time
  • live fuel moisture content
  • pressure–volume curve
  • turgor loss point
  • wildfire


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