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

NASAThe COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted lives around the world in countless ways. To help learn more about one of these many impacts, Tall Timbers is working 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 peak months for prescribed fire use in the Southeast. NASA satellites (MODIS and VIIRS) detected a 50% reduction in active fires in March 2020, and the reduction in fires has continued in the Southeast through fall-2020. The pandemic is now in position to impact a second peak prescribed fire season for the Southeast in early 2021.

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 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 within the context of COVID-19 to raise awareness of the growing backlog in fire use, help prioritize resources, and enable discussions on how to balance public health safety during the pandemic with the public safety and ecological benefits of prescribed fire use. 

We are also working with the Southern Fire Exchange on a webinar to share this data and host a panel discussion on creative strategies and success stories that have come out of fire management during the pandemic. The webinar will be in early 2021 and registration will be available on the Southern Fire Exchange calendar page.

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.