Mechanical mastication reduces fuel structure and modelled fire behaviour in Australian shrub encroached ecosystems.
Shrub encroachment of grassland and woodland ecosystems can alter wildfire behaviour and threaten ecological values. Australian fire managers are using mechanical mastication to reduce the fire risk in encroached ecosystems but are yet to evaluate its effectiveness or ecological impact. We asked: (1) How does fuel load and structure change following mastication?; (2) Is mastication likely to affect wildfire rates of spread and flame heights?; and (3) What is the impact of mastication on flora species richness and diversity? At thirteen paired sites (masticated versus control; n = 26), located in Victoria, Australia, we measured fuel properties (structure, load and hazard) and floristic diversity (richness and Shannon's H) in 400 mP2 plots. To quantify the effects of mastication, data were analysed using parametric and non-parametric paired sample techniques. Masticated sites were grouped into two categories, 0-2 and 3-4 years post treatment. Fire behaviour was predicted using the Dry Eucalypt Forest Fire Model. Mastication with follow-up herbicide reduced the density of taller shrubs, greater than 50 cm in height, for at least 4 years. The most recently masticated sites (0-2 years) had an almost 3-fold increase in dead fine fuel loads and an 11-fold increase in dead coarse fuel loads on the forest floor compared with the controls. Higher dead coarse fuel loads were still evident after 3-4 years. Changes to fuel properties produced a reduction in predicted flame heights from 22 m to 5-6 m under severe fire weather conditions, but no change in the predicted fire rate of spread. Reductions in flame height would be beneficial for wildfire suppression and could reduce the damage to property from wildfires. Mastication did not have a meaningful effect on native species diversity, but promoted the abundance of some exotic species.