Impacts of prescribed fire on soil loss and soil quality : An assessment based on an experimentally-burned catchment in central Portugal

Shakesby, Richard A.; Martins Bento, Celia; Ferreira, Carla S.S.; Ferreira, António J.D.; Stoof, C.R.; Urbanek, Emilia; Walsh, Rory P.D.


Prescribed (controlled) fire has recently been adopted as an important wildfire-fighting strategy in the Mediterranean. Relatively little research, however, has assessed its impacts on soil erosion and soil quality. This paper investigates hillslope-scale losses of soil, organic matter and selected nutrients before and after a 'worst-case scenario' prescribed fire in a steep, shrub-vegetated catchment with thin stony soil in central Portugal. Comparison is made with soil erosion measured: (1) on a nearby hillslope burned by wildfire and monitored at the hillslope scale and (2) on long-unburned terrain at small-plot, hillslope- and catchment-scales. Hillslope-scale pre- and post-fire soil erosion was recorded over periods of 6weeks to 5months for (1) 9.5months pre-fire and 27months post-fire in the prescribed fire catchment, and (2) c. 3years post-fire at the wildfire site. Organic matter content, pH, total N, K2O, P2O5, Ca2+ and Mg2+ were measured in the eroded sediment and in pre- and post-prescribed fire surface soil. Results indicate that: (1) both the prescribed fire and the wildfire caused expected marked increases in erosion compared with unburned terrain; and (2) the hillslope-scale post-prescribed fire soil losses (up to 2.41tha-1yr-1) exceeded many reported plot-scale post-prescribed fire and post-wildfire erosion rates in the Mediterranean. As a comparison, post-fire erosion for both fire types was less than that caused by some other forms of common soil disturbance (e.g. types of tillage) and even that on undisturbed shrubland in low rainfall areas of the region. Total estimated post-prescribed fire particulate losses of organic matter and nutrients represent only 0.2-2.9% of the content in the upper 2cm of soil, suggesting only a modest fire effect on soil quality, although this may reflect in part a lack of extreme rainfall events following the fire. The longer-term implications for soil conservation of repeated prescribed fire in the Mediterranean are explored and future research priorities identified.