NASA Fire Detection & COVID-19 Impacts on Fire Use

Tall Timbers is working with NASA and other partners to better understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the use of prescribed fire in the Southeastern United States.

The Pandemic and Fire


The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted lives around the world in countless ways. To help learn more about one of these many impacts, Tall Timbers worked with the NASA Earth Science Division through their Rapid Response program, and the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula Fire Lab to measure and better understand changes in the use of prescribed fire during the pandemic. This research is part of an effort to help mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic on the wildfire risk reduction benefits and wildlife habitat benefits of prescribed fire use.

In March 2020, as the pandemic began to spread in the United States, many organizations halted or reduced their prescribed fire programs to help maintain social distancing for those who conduct burns, and address uncertainty regarding the potential for smoke to aggravate COVID-19 symptoms. These changes overlapped with the peak spring months for prescribed fire use in the Southeast. NASA satellites (MODIS and VIIRS) detected a 50% reduction in active fires in the Southeast during March 2020, quantifying this large reduction in prescribed fire use.

A backlog of lands that need to be treated with prescribed fire already exists, and the federal government shutdown of 2018-2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in spring-2020 have both added to this fire deficit. Fire is a natural process and without prescribed fire as a safe substitute, forest and grassland fuels accumulate and cause more destructive wildfires that can be negative for wildlife and society.

This webpage provides a collection of fire statistics by state to help raise awareness of reductions and increases in fire as federal, state, local, and private prescribed fire users respond and adapt to the larger political, social, and environmental context.

This work is featured in the article COVID-19 lockdowns drive decline in active fires in southeastern United States in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additionally, this research, including a discussion on strategies to continue the use of prescribed fire, was featured in a webinar by the Southern Fire Exchange.

Interactive Data

The following window provides a view of the “Fire TrendR” app developed by Tall Timbers staff in cooperation with NASA to allow the fire management community to interact with satellite fire detection data. Access the app directly for best results on mobile devices.