Fire transforms fuels (i.e. biomass, necromass, soil organic matter) into materials with different chemical and physical properties. One of these materials is ash, which is the particulate residue remaining or deposited on the ground that consists of mineral materials and charred organic components. The quantity and characteristics of ash produced during a wildland fire depend mainly on (1) the total burned fuel (i.e. fuel load), (2) fuel type and (3) its combustion completeness. For a given fuel load and type, a higher combustion completeness will reduce the ash organic carbon content, increasing the relative mineral content, and hence reducing total mass of ash produced. The homogeneity and thickness of the ash layer can vary substantially in space and time and reported average thicknesses range from close to 0 to 50 mm. Ash is a highly mobile material that, after its deposition, may be incorporated into the soil profile, redistributed or removed from a burned site within days or weeks by wind and water erosion to surface depressions, footslopes, streams, lakes, reservoirs and, potentially, into marine deposits.
Research on the composition, properties and effects of ash on the burned ecosystem has been conducted on material collected in the field after wildland and prescribed fires as well as on material produced in the laboratory. At low combustion completeness (typically T < 450 °C), ash is organic-rich, with organic carbon as the main component. At high combustion completeness (T > 450 °C), most organic carbon is volatized and the remaining mineral ash has elevated pH when in solution. It is composed mainly of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, silicon and phosphorous in the form of inorganic carbonates, whereas at T > 580 °C the most common forms are oxides. Ash produced under lower combustion completeness is usually darker, coarser, and less dense and has a higher saturated hydraulic conductivity than ash with higher combustion completeness, although physical reactions with CO2 and when moistened produce further changes in ash characteristics.
As a new material present after a wildland fire, ash can have profound effects on ecosystems. It affects biogeochemical cycles, including the C cycle, not only within the burned area, but also globally. Ash incorporated into the soil increases temporarily soil pH and nutrient pools and changes physical properties such as albedo, soil texture and hydraulic properties including water repellency. Ash modifies soil hydrologic behavior by creating a two-layer system: the soil and the ash layer, which can function in different ways depending on (1) ash depth and type, (2) soil type and (3) rainfall characteristics. Key parameters are the ash's water holding capacity, hydraulic conductivity and its potential to clog soil pores. Runoff from burned areas carries soluble nutrients contained in ash, which can lead to problems for potable water supplies. Ash deposition also stimulates soil microbial activity and vegetation growth.
Further work is needed to (1) standardize methods for investigating ash and its effects on the ecosystem, (2) characterize ash properties for specific ecosystems and wildland fire types, (3) determine the effects of ash on human and ecosystem health, especially when transported by wind or water, (4) investigate ash's controls on water and soil losses at slope and catchment scales, (5) examine its role in the C cycle, and (6) study its redistribution and fate in the environment.
Additional publication details
|Publication Subtype||Journal Article|
|Title||Wildland fire ash: Production, composition and eco-hydro-geomorphic effects|
|Series title||Earth-Science Reviews|
|Contributing office(s)||National Research Program - Central Branch|