Credit: Kala Hunter / Ledger-Enquirer
Good fire days are shrinking in Georgia. What it means for wildfires and smoke pollution
The number of days that Georgia can now perform “prescribed burning” is shrinking as a result of climate change, adding to the already delicate balance of the fire prevention action.
While burning across private and public lands helps ecosystem health and reduces the risk of wildfires, it also pollutes the smoke that contains particulate matter harmful to human health.
Until recently, federal and state resource managers, and private land managers utilized a wider window to burn and manage the process. But now good burning days are shrinking caused of a changing climate, forcing managers to make tough decisions when to burn and how much.
Georgia is a prescribed fire champion. Roughly 2 million acres of private and public land are burned every year–second only to Florida–in the Southeast region.
Prescribed burning, or “good fire” as experts call it, allows native and endangered plants and animals to thrive, and burns away grasses and understory that fuels out-of-control wildfires.
“Two-thirds of the terrestrial endangered species plants and animals in Georgia are fire-dependent,” Nathan Klaus, Senior Wildlife Biologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said. “Whether you are talking about oak-hickory in North Georgia or mixed pine hardwoods on Fort Moore, or even wetlands at Okefenokee, these are all fire-dependent ecosystems.”
Though there is no official date to begin burning, wind conditions, temperature and relative humidity align for good conditions around the end of January and early February. This time of year is further emphasized by the Prescribed Fire Awareness Week proclaimed by Governor Kemp the first week of February.
James Parker, Natural Resource Manager at Fort Moore can remember when burning started in December at the military installation.
“This year, we started the very last week of January,” he said. “We average about 30-40 good burn days per year from January to the end of May. 23 years ago, we probably had 50 good burn days per year.”
Fort Moore has a goal to burn 63,000 acres per year, six-fold compared to where they were in 1985 when they burned less than 10,000 acres per year Parker said.
But in the '90s they had more wildfires, up to 600 per year.
In 2023 they only had 51 wildfires all year. Parker said these are caused by lightning strikes or from training–some 40 million rounds of ammo are fired per year that could ignite a flame.
“The longleaf pine we manage works well with military mission,” Parker said. “Fire helps lagoons, grasses, forest floor, and the endangered red cock-headed woodpecker that require old-growth trees that are at least 60-80 years old.”
Fort Moore’s prescribed burning has paid off. There are 30,000 acres of the endangered long-leaf pine on the installation.
“They are really on it,” Klaus said. “Fort Moore is spectacular in terms of wildlife.”
A lot of preparation
Before the clouds of white smoke begin to waft over the Columbus horizon, teams of meteorologists and fire experts staff at Fort Moore are making sure all of the right conditions line up to burn, with smoke pollution as their main concern. Additionally, Parker and the burn team must not affect any training operations that they have to add to their burn calculus.
With weather stations on site, as well as a few dozen trained certified burn managers, they decide by 8 a.m. during burn season whether it’s a good day to burn.
“Today is a west wind, so it’s helping keep smoke away from the major urban area, Columbus,” Parker said on Friday, Feb. 2nd, during the first burn of the season.
Once the team decides on a burn, they notify the installation via the smoke and sound website.
“The weather extremes have affected the number of burn days we have available,” Parker said. “If it rains a lot in the spring we’ll have fewer burn days. If I get a hot blast of hot temps earlier in the year it’s going to limit our burn days.”
The majority of the land in Georgia is privately owned. Private landowners in Georgia have the right to burn, so long as they obtain a burn permit.
The Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) issues about 80,000 burn permits per year averaging about 1.4 million acres.
On Feb. 2 the GFC gave out 1,315 burn permits.
“Saturday was a busy day, we usually do about 800-1000 permits on good burn days this time of year,” Ken Parker, wildland fire specialist for GFC said.
A team of dispatchers in Macon and Tifton answer calls all day from private landowners this time of year that use data from the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast.
“We try to get a permit within five minutes,” Ken Parker said. “In general if we don’t see anything obvious like that [the smoke] won’t impact schools, nursing homes, daycares, hospitals, even chicken houses, they get the permit in their email right away.”
The average size of the burn is 17 acres, according to GFC records. “There are a lot of 200-300 acre burns out there, but there are also a lot of 1-acre burns.”
Ken Parker wants even more prescribed burning to occur. The current goal is 2 million acres. The average is about 1.3 million acres throughout a five-year average period. Georgia burns about 30% of what it could burn.
“We should be burning four million acres of pine every year (combined public and private land) but we can’t socially, economically, or physically burn four million acres and put that much smoke in the air.”
That is even less likely with less good burn days.
“It does appear that we are seeing less and less ideal days,” Ken Parker said.
The future is smokey
The particulate matter in smoke (PM2.5) standard made by the EPA is not to exceed 35 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) Yesterday, the EPA changed the National Ambient Air Quality Standard from 12 ug/m to nine, “to provide increased public health protection, consistent with the available health science,” according to their website.
If the nine ug/m three-year average is exceeded, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has to write a report of the cause, record it, and create a mitigation plan, “likely restrict burning”, Ken Parker said.
“We were hoping for 10,” Ken Parker said.
On Saturday, Feb. 3, there were three exceedances: Columbus, Albany, and Savannah. Columbus reached 43.9 ug/m3. In response to why the air quality levels were so poor, Fort Moore suggested many other burns were going on that day.
“Saturday was a typical prescribed burning day in the Southeastern U.S. with several burns occurring…affecting smoke dispersion into the atmosphere,” the public affairs office said.
Megan Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow of North Carolina State University in the Southeast Climate Science and Adaptation Center and a current ORISE fellow at the U.S. Forest Service.
Johnson dedicated a chapter of her dissertation toward understanding how smoke management in the Southeast will change with shorter good burn days, from a changing climate. She surveyed hundreds of private landowners to understand their concerns and needs.
“The biggest reason private land owners are prevented from using prescribed fire as often as they like is ‘smoke management concerns’ followed by two contrasting issues: excessive precipitation and drought,” Johnson said.
Inspired by a 2020 study, Johnson set out to understand if burners will burn less in general, or if will they consolidate their burning and do more acres per day. If they do more acres per day, how will that affect the air quality?
“The future is smokey, we know there is going to be fire and smoke,” Johnson said. “If current burning regulations or definitions of acceptable burning conditions stay the same, we will probably have to use prescribed fire less frequently. When we think about the future of fire and smoke in the Southeast, it will depend on what we deem acceptable or necessary in terms of air quality and fire on the ground.”
Her survey found the majority are unsure about when climate change may affect their practice and objectives.
Additionally, Johnson’s survey found the biggest resource that would help private landowners meet burning objectives in a changing climate is personnel.
New and more resources
On Wednesday, Feb. 7, Nathan Klaus and a team of wildland firefighters set fire to 130 acres on the Sand Hill Wildlife Management Area, just 40 miles East of Columbus. It was the first burn of the season for Klaus and for some of the firefighters, their first prescribed burn ever.
The 35,000-acre area was purchased to conserve endangered gopher tortoises. Anyone can come on this land so long as they have a hunting license, fishing license, or a land pass.
The group of seven wildland firefighters plotted out their burn plan for the day and started burning around 1:30 p.m.
“I planted all of these longleaf pine,” Nathan Klaus said. “They are all about 10 years old now.”
Klaus chose this public land because the Sand Hills are not very complex.
“It’s pretty forgiving and pretty easy for our newer firefighters,” he said.
Klaus and one other wildland firefighter were the only two senior experts in the game.
“I mean we need you know, we need like 10 more of these size groups in the state,” Klaus said.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph