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Burn Intensity Drives the Alteration of Phenolic Lignin to (Poly) Aromatic Hydrocarbons as Revealed by Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (Py-GC/MS).


High-intensity wildfires alter the chemical composition of organic matter, which is expected to be distinctly different from low-intensity prescribed fires. Herein, we used pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS), in conjunction with solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy, to assess chemical alterations from three wildfires and a long-term frequent prescribed fire site. Our results showed that black ash formed under moderate intensity burns contained less aromatic (ArH), polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), and nitrogen-containing compounds (Ntg) but more lignin (LgC) and phenol compounds (PhC), compared to white ash formed under high intensity burns. Both 13C NMR and FT-IR confirmed a higher relative percentage of carboxyl carbon in white ash, indicating the potential for higher water solubility and more mobile carbon, relative to black ash. Compared to wildfires, ash from low-intensity prescribed fire contained less ArH, PAH, and Ntg and more LgC and PhC. Controlled laboratory burning trials indicated that organic matter alteration was sensitive to the burn temperature, but not related to the fuel type (pine vs fir) nor oxygen absence/presence at high burn temperatures. This study concludes that higher burn temperatures resulted in higher (poly)aromatic carbon/nitrogen and lower lignin/phenol compounds.

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