The Future of Fire in the South

More major wildfire events and more constraints on prescribed burning forecast for the region

Prescribed fire in Coastal Plain flatwoods. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
Prescribed fire in Coastal Plain flatwoods. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Fire is an integral part of the southern landscape.

In the U.S., most of the focus is on the catastrophic fires that regularly sweep across the western states, but wildfires actually occur more frequently in the Southeast, where rapid vegetation growth and fuel accumulation combine with frequent ignitions from lightning and humans. The South leads the nation in annual occurrences of wildfire, averaging approximately 45,000 wildfires per year. Continued population growth in the South increases the potential threat that wildfires pose to life and property. In addition, forestry and forestry related-industry represent a significant portion of the region’s economy, making each wildfire a potential loss to a local economy.

Prescribed fire is an important tool used in the South to manage hazardous fuels and provide other ecological and economic benefits. Each year approximately 8 million acres of land are treated with prescribed fire in the South — more than in all other U.S. regions combined. Most of this acreage is burned for hazardous fuel reduction, wildlife management, and range management, although an increasing number of acres are burned for ecosystem restoration and maintenance.

Chartered by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station along with the Southern Group of State Foresters, the Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) examined a variety of possible futures and how they might shape forests across the 13 states of the South. Chapter 17 of the SFFP Technical Report reports on the role of fire—both wildfire and prescribed burning—in the forests of the South over the next 50 years.

Key Findings:

  • Climate forecasts indicate that the South’s spring and fall wildfire seasons will be longer.
  • Prescribed fires, now conducted on a 3 to 5-year rotation across much of the South, would need to be done more frequently as conditions become drier.
  • Major wildfire events are also likely to occur more often.
  • Land use change will have the most immediate effects on fuels and wildland fire management by constraining prescribed fire and increasing the costs and complexity of suppression.
  • Air quality issues will likely increase restrictions on prescribed burning over large areas.
  • Potential health and safety concerns, in addition to air quality restrictions, will add regulatory constraints on the use of prescribed fire.
  • Alternatives to prescribed burning are generally not cost-effective and do not provide the ecological benefits of fire to adapted ecosystems.
  • Fuels buildups combined with more intense wildfires under a warmer, drier climate could severely degrade fire-dependent communities that often support multiple threatened, endangered or sensitive species.
  • In addition to increasing the severity of wildfire events, drier conditions and increased variability in precipitation associated with climate change would hamper successful forest regeneration and cause shifts in vegetation types over time.
  • Restrictions on the use of prescribed burning to manage fuels will exacerbate potential climate change effects, particularly in the Coastal Plains and the western Appalachian Mountains, where models predict an increase in wildfire potential.

Read the full text of the chapter.


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