Fire managers across the United States are grappling with more frequent, extreme wildfires caused in part by a changing climate and nearly a century of ardent fire suppression. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, increasing temperatures along with the knee-jerk tendency to extinguish fire has created an environment ripe for higher-intensity, larger flames, according to a study published last month in Ecosphere.
But the Southeast takes a different approach to fire.
In 2018, Georgia, Florida and Alabama prescribed burns to more than 4 million acres of land, while the remaining 47 states and territories burned about 2 million acres combined, according to data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and analyzed by Climate Central. Experts warn this data may undercount prescribed burning, but a country-wide survey by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils similarly found that, in 2017, the Southeast was responsible for two-thirds of the nation’s prescribed burns.
Although each state requires a different amount of prescribed burning to sustain a healthy ecosystem, many states with sizable amounts of federal and state lands aren’t meeting their goals. Staff at the U.S. Forest Service, which treated only about 1% of the nearly 200 million acres of land it manages with prescribed burns in 2018, are alarmed by their own agency’s lack of burning. For the first time in history, they’re considering restructuring the agency to facilitate more prescribed fires.