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Fire is playing an increasing role in shaping the structure, composition, and function of vast areas of moist tropical forest. Within the Brazilian Amazon, cattle ranching and swidden agriculture provide abundant sources of ignition to forests that become susceptible to fire through selective logging, severe drought and, perhaps, fragmentation. Our understanding of the biophysical factors that control fire spread through Amazon forests remains largely anecdotal, however, restricting our ability to model the Amazon fire regime, and to simulate the effects of trends in climate and land-use activities on future regimes. We used experimental fires together with measurements of micrometeorology (rainfall, vapor pressure deficit [VPD], wind velocity), canopy attributes (leaf area index [LAI], canopy height), and fuel characteristics (litter moisture content [LMC] and mass) to identify the variables most closely associated with fire susceptibility in the east-central Amazon. Fire spread rates (FSR, m/min) were measured in three common forest types: an 8-yr-old regrowth forest, a recently logged/burned forest, and a mature forest. One hundred fires were set in each study area during the last two months of the 2002 dry season. VPD, recent precipitation history, wind velocity, and LAI explained 57% of the variability in FSR. In combination, LAI, canopy height, and recent precipitation history accounted for similar to 65% of the-variability in VPD, the single most important predictor of FSR, and approximately half of the total observed variability in FSR. Using logistic regression we were able to predict whether a fire would spread or die 72% of the time based on LAI, canopy height, and recent precipitation history. An approximate threshold in fire susceptibility was associated with a LMC of similar to 23%, somewhat higher than previously reported (15%). Fire susceptibility was highest under low, sparse canopies, which permitted greater coupling of relatively hot, dry air above the canopy with the otherwise cool, moist air near the forest floor. Fire susceptibility increased over time after rain events as the forest floor gradually dried. The most important determinants of fire susceptibility can be captured in ecosystem and climate models and through remotely sensed estimates of canopy structure, canopy water content, and microclimatic variables.

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