Fire intensity drives post-fire temporal pattern of soil carbon accumulation in Australian fire-prone forests
The impact of fire on global C cycles is considerable but complex. Nevertheless, studies on patterns of soil C accumulation following fires of differing intensity over time are lacking. Our study utilised 15 locations last burnt by prescribed fire (inferred low intensity) and 18 locations last burnt by wildfire (inferred high intensity), with time since fire (TSF) up to 43 years, in a homogenous forest type in south eastern Australia. Following a stratified approach to mineral soil sampling, the soil % total C (% C Tot ) and % recalcitrant pyrogenic C (% RPC), were estimated. Generalised additive models indicated increases in % C Tot at TSF > 30 years in sites last burnt by wildfire. Estimates in sites last subjected to prescribed fire however, remained constant across the TSF chronosequence. There was no significant difference in % C Tot between the different fire types for the first 20 years after fire. In the first 10 years after wildfires, % RPC was elevated, declining to a minimum at ca. TSF 25 years. After prescribed fires, % RPC was unaffected by TSF. Differences in response of % C Tot and % RPC to fire type may reflect the strength of stimulation of early successional processes and extent of charring. The divergent response to fire type in % C Tot was apparent at TSF longer than the landscape average fire return interval (i.e., 15 to 20 years). Thus, any attempt to increase C sequestration in soils would require long-term exclusion of fire. Conversely, increased fire frequency is likely to have negligible impact on soil C stocks in these forests. Further investigation of the effects of fire frequency, fire intensity combinations and interaction of fire with other disturbances will enhance prediction of the likely impact of imposed or climatically induced changes to fire regimes on soil C.