Air quality standards are currently a big topic in the prescribed fire world, and Albany, Georgia, has unfortunately become a test case for protecting prescribed fire use.
In January 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency caught the attention of burn managers with the announcement of a proposed rule to strengthen the national ambient air quality standard. The proposed rule is based on the protection of human health and will revise the annual Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 standard from 12 micrograms to within the range of 9 to 10 micrograms. These fine particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter are released by various sources, including power plants, factories, diesel trucks, farming practices, and fires—both wild and prescribed. PM 2.5 is so tiny that it can enter the lungs and bloodstream, contributing to asthma, heart attacks, and strokes.
Tall Timbers has engaged on this issue from the very beginning with additional science, advocacy, and outreach to elected officials. Dr. Morgan Varner, Tall Timbers Research Director, noted, “We don’t have issues with the human health science and desire for cleaner air; our concern is that the regulatory system is not recognizing prescribed fire as the best practice to help address wildfires and their more significant threat to air quality and human health.” For more background on this issue and Tall Timbers’ advocacy work, see our April and June 2023 articles.
So why is Albany, Georgia, in the middle of this topic? Albany, with a population of almost 100,000, is adjacent to some of the largest contiguous lands in the South utilizing prescribed fire to manage bobwhite quail, biodiversity, and reduced wildfire risk. Adding together urban air pollution sources, surrounding agriculture emissions, prescribed fire use, and the Flint River Valley holding it all together in low areas has been a recipe for air quality exceedances. The air quality sensor in Albany has triggered the current annual PM 2.5 standard of 12 micrograms in two out of the last four years. That means restrictions on using prescribed fire based on air quality standards are not a future concern for the Albany region; it’s already happening. And reducing the standard to 9 or 10 micrograms under the current regulatory system would mean additional restrictions.
In the fall of 2022, the Georgia Forestry Commission hosted a meeting to address the PM 2.5 exceedance incidents in the Albany area. The resulting pilot program limited burn unit size on days when the atmospheric transport winds were below 9 miles per hour and suspended all burning when the transport winds fell below 6 miles per hour.
Early reports indicate that the spring 2023 pilot program did result in fewer days exceeding the daily standard for PM 2.5, and the acres treated with prescribed fire were equal to or slightly higher than in 2022 when the restrictions were not in place. However, it will take until the end of the year to see if the current annual PM 2.5 standard of 12 micrograms is achieved —something local fire practitioners and scientists are watching closely.
Prescribed fire is a complex practice, and the concern experts often point to is the loss of burning by the layering of restrictions. The nature of prescribed fire dictates that burn managers consider various environmental and weather factors to select the limited days with the conditions needed for successful and safe burns. When additional restrictions regarding smoke management, air quality, insurance availability, neighborhoods encroaching on wildlands, and more all layer on, the remaining time and workforce available can’t treat the areas that need prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk and support biodiversity.
Tall Timbers continues to advocate for updating the implementation of air quality standards to recognize the benefits of prescribed fire as our nation deals with the much larger air quality impacts associated with wildfires stemming from the lack of these “good fires.”
To help Albany area land managers with the immediate need, Tall Timbers’ Clay Sission and George Jensen worked with Georgia Forestry Commission’s Ken Parker to facilitate a summer smoke education Georgia Certified Burn Manager event. The certified burn manager course is crucial to continuing the safe application of prescribed fire to 1.4 million acres of Georgia lands every year.
Course content included all the basic skills needed to apply a prescribed fire and expanded content on smoke and smoke management unique to the Albany area. Attendees, including many long-time practitioners of prescribed fire, had great questions and comments, adding even more of a local touch to an often-rigorous two-day training.
Due to the tight management schedules of properties managed for quail hunting, land managers often struggle to attend longer events. However, the June timing of this training allowed staff and landowners to get out of the heat while still learning about fire. Facilitated by the Southwest Georgia Prescribed Burn Association, the training included 48 participants from various-sized properties representing over 200,000 acres of private land.
The high level of interest in this training is a testament to the continuous learning mindset of the region’s land managers. Tall Timbers will continue to advocate for investment in prescribed fire air quality research and the development of best practices, training, and technology to help further reduce the impacts of prescribed fire smoke while expanding its beneficial use. Without the expanded use of prescribed fire, we will continue to lose ground on air quality improvements to future wildfires.
Tall Timbers and the Southwest Georgia Prescribed Burn Association are thankful to Matt Bradley, the Georgia Forestry Commission, The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Working Lands for Wildlife, and The Longleaf Alliance for supporting this event.