Drought, Fire, and Forests

Wildfires in the Southeast fueled by drought

In the smoke: Frying Pan Mountain Fire Tower over the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service
In the smoke: Frying Pan Mountain Fire Tower over the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service

A special report published in the Knoxville News-Sentinel on November 20 noted that forest fires have now burned more than 119,000 acres in eight states across the Southeast. Though no lives have been lost in the fires, the smoke has sent hundreds of people from Asheville to Atlanta to emergency rooms and doctors’ offices with respiratory problems.

More than 6,300 firefighters from all over the U.S have been fighting the blazes, some of which have burned for over a month. The low humidity and lack of rain for more than three months in some areas has provided what Adam Rondeau from the inter-agency Southern Area Coordination Center  was quoted as calling “the perfect environment for fires to spread.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows areas of exceptional drought — the highest level on the monitor’s scale — occurring across parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, with the entire Southeast now in moderate drought or worse. According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center Climate Perspectives Analysis, several stations in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have had the driest three-month period (from mid-August to mid-November) on record, and others rank in the top ten driest category. With little or no rain predicted for the Southeast in the near future, the drought and forest fires could go on for months.

As temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change under climate change, it’s likely that drought – and associated disturbances such as insect outbreaks and wildfires – will only get worse across many areas of the U.S. Large stand-level changes in forests are already underway in many parts of the West, but all U.S. forests can be impacted by drought, as can be seen now in the Southeast, where record-breaking drought fueled the outbreak of hundreds of wildfires.

How can forest managers address the impacts of short-term and long-term drought conditions and manage their lands for a hotter and drier future? A report published earlier this year by the U.S. Forest Service provides a national assessment of the impacts of drought on the nation’s forests and rangelands and gives the scientific foundation needed to develop strategies that managers can use to increase the resiliency of their forests.

“Management actions can either mitigate or exacerbate the effects of drought,” said Jim Vose, the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist and project leader of the SRS Center for Integrated Forest Science who served as one of lead editors of the report. “This synthesis establishes the scientific foundation needed to manage forests for drought resiliency and adaptation.”

Forested land alone comprises nearly one-third of the total land area of the U.S. — the single largest classification of land cover in the country. Although the assessment is national in scope, it identifies and discusses key regional concerns such as large-scale insect outbreaks and increased wildfire risk in the western U.S.

For some time, the focus on drought effects have been on the West, on drought contributions to the catastrophic fires that seem larger every season, but the wildfires burning now in the Southern Appalachians right now give an indication of how drought can affect forest resources of the East. Drought impacts in the East could have equal or greater consequences because of the large human populations living near forests and relying on them for many key purposes, including clean water and air.

Major findings from the report include:

  • Drought projections suggest that some regions will become drier and that most will have extreme variations in precipitation.
  • Even if current drought patterns remained unchanged, warmer temperatures will amplify drought effects.
  • Drought and warmer temperatures will increase risks of large-scale insect outbreaks and larger wildfires, especially in the western U.S.
  • Drought and warmer temperatures will accelerate tree and shrub death, changing habitats and ecosystems in favor of drought-tolerant species.
  • Forest-based products and values – such as timber, water, habitat, and recreation opportunities – will be negatively impacted.
  • Forest and rangeland managers can mitigate some of these impacts and build resiliency in forests through appropriate management actions.

Learn more about drought impacts on southern forests and possible strategies to increase resilience.

Edited by Forest Service scientists in partnership with Duke University and published by the Southern Research Station, Drought Impacts on U.S. Forests and Rangelands provides critical information for the recently re-authorized National Integrated Drought Information System and meets the National Climate Assessment need for scientific information on drought.

More than 70 scientific experts from the Forest Service, other federal agencies, research institutions, and universities across the U.S. participated in the synthesis. The key issues addressed in the synthesis were identified from a series of virtual workshops with scientists and stakeholders.

Access the full report.

For more information, email Jim Vose at jvose@fs.fed.us

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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