‘Plant BBQ’ shedding light on the flammability of our forests

Working out which plants are highly flammable, and which aren’t, is crucial to managing Australia’s increasing threat from bushfire.

At the University of Tasmania, Summer Potvin is studying the flammability of plant material by analysing its chemical composition, and burning it on a special apparatus called a ‘Plant BBQ’.

“Looking at the chemical composition of plant tissue, including the carbon to nitrogen ratio and phosphorus content, can help us to better understand why some plant species are so flammable in comparison to others,” says Summer.

“This research is highly valuable in Tasmania, which is seeing an increase in catastrophic wildfires.”

By burning plant species found in the understory of wet eucalypt forests Summer aims to demonstrate which plant species show a high or low level of flammability.

This information will then be compared to the chemical composition to see if these properties relate to the flammability level, therefore showing which plants are flammable and why.

Summer predicts there will be some low flammability plants that could be used as green firebreaks and hopes her work will be incorporated into Tasmania’s fire management practices in addition to current fuel reduction methods.

“Due to climate change, we are facing record breaking dry springs and warm dry summers. This change in weather is altering the structure and characteristics of vegetation, increasing the chance it will ignite. As a result, wildfire frequency and severity are both increasing.”

“Wet eucalypt forests, such as those found in Tasmania, are particularly fire prone due to their dense accumulation of vegetation and high amounts of carbon.”

Summer Potvin from the University of Tasmania is the winner of the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2019 Applied Forest Ecology Scholarship. The scholarship will support her project “Chemical composition and flammability of understory plant species found in wet eucalypt forests.”

Summer will present her findings at the ESA2019 conference in Launceston, Tasmania in November.