COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts on Prescribed Fire

The 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 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.

The graph below shows that spring 2020 had the fewest active fire detections on federal lands of any spring in the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) nine-year record. Likewise, NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)—a similar sensor but with a longer data record—showed spring 2020 fire counts were the lowest in a 16-year record.

However, the Red Hills region of southwestern Georgia and north Florida actually showed some increase in fire activity in spring 2020. It is believed that private lands managers in the Red Hills prioritized doing prescribed fires more quickly than usual, as uncertainty about COVID-19 and possible changes in burning restrictions in Florida and Georgia loomed.

In many areas 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.

Tall Timbers has established a new webpage that 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.

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