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Litter Species Composition and Topographic Effects on Fuels and Modeled Fire Behavior in an Oak-Hickory Forest in the Eastern USA

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Dickinson, Matthew B.; Hutchinson, Todd F.; Dietenberger, Mark; Matt, Frederick; Peters, Matthew P.; Yang, Jian

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PLOS ONE, Vol. 11(8): e0159997-.


Mesophytic species (esp. Acer rubrum) are increasingly replacing oaks (Quercus spp.) in fire-suppressed, deciduous oak-hickory forests of the eastern US. A pivotal hypothesis is that fuel beds derived from mesophytic litter are less likely than beds derived from oak litter to carry a fire and, if they do, are more likely to burn at lower intensities. Species effects, however, are confounded by topographic gradients that affect overstory composition and fuel bed decomposition. To examine the separate and combined effects of litter species composition and topography on surface fuel beds, we conducted a common garden experiment in oak-hickory forests of the Ohio Hills. Each common garden included beds composed of mostly oak and mostly maple litter, representative of oak- and maple-dominated stands, respectively, and a mixture of the two. Beds were replenished each fall for four years. Common gardens (N = 16) were established at four topographic positions (ridges, benches on south- and northeast-facing slopes, and stream terraces) at each of four sites. Litter source and topographic position had largely independent effects on fuel beds and modeled fire dynamics after four years of development. Loading (kg m-2) of the upper litter layer (L), the layer that primarily supports flaming spread, was least in more mesic landscape positions and for maple beds, implying greater decomposition rates for those situations. Bulk density in the L layer (kg m-3) was least for oak beds which, along with higher loading, would promote fire spread and fireline intensity. Loading and bulk density of the combined fermentation and humic (FH) layers were least on stream terrace positions but were not related to species. Litter- and FH-layer moistures during a 5-day dry-down period after a rain event were affected by time and topographic effects while litter source effects were not evident. Characteristics of flaming combustion determined with a cone calorimeter pointed to greater fireline intensity for oak fuel beds and unexpected interactions between litter source and topography. A spread index, which synthesizes a suite of fuel bed, particle, and combustion characteristics to indicate spread (vs extinction) potential, was primarily affected by litter source and, secondarily, by the low spread potentials on mesic landscape positions early in the 5-day dry-down period. A similar result was obtained for modeled fireline intensity. Our results suggest that the continuing transition from oaks to mesophytic species in the Ohio Hills will reduce fire spread potentials and fire intensities.


Dickinson, Matthew B.; Hutchinson, Todd F.; Dietenberger, Mark; Matt, Frederick; Peters, Matthew P.; Yang, Jian. 2016. Litter species composition and topographic effects on fuels and modeled fire behavior in an Oak-Hickory Forest in the Eastern USA. PLOS ONE. 11(8). 30 pp. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159997.

Last updated on: November 22, 2016