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  • Writer's pictureNoah Bookstein

Milton researchers study wildfires in the East

Is fighting fire with fire effective? In a way, researchers think it is.

The American West is no stranger to wildfires, with high profile incidents occurring routinely in California. While Western wildfires tend to dominate

Courtesy of Wix.

the news, scientists have observed a shift in wildfire trends that suggest they could become more common in the American East as well.

Dr. Victoria Donovan, Assistant Professor of Forest Management at the UF/IFAS, is based in Milton, FL at the West Florida Research And Education Center where she splits her time between teaching and researching. Donovan conducted a study to better understand whether or not changing wildfire patterns in the western and central United States are also being reflected in the East.

“The fire dynamics occurring in the Eastern U.S. are going to be a lot different than the Western U.S.,” Donovan said. “We're seeing a rise in large wildfire activity, and that suggests that we might continue to see this growing rise and an increasing threat in the Eastern U.S.”

“Identifying those trends as early as possible would be important for us to prepare to reduce damage from large wildfires.”

Researchers analyzed data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) database to gather information on large wildfires in the eastern United States. The database contains data on wildfires greater than 200 hectares in size. Samples Donovan looked at spanned from 1984 to 2020. They isolated the wildfire perimeter data from the MTBS database and combined it with information on the ignition sources of those fires, which allowed them to summarize the characteristics of different wildfires across the eastern U.S.

According to Donovan, there are three main factors that influence large scale fire patterns.

“We need to consider ignition patterns, we need to look at patterns in fuels and vegetation, and then we need to consider the climate as well,” she said.

Wildfires are usually caused by two kinds of ignitions. In Florida, natural ignitions are mostly from lighting strikes but in other areas they can include things like volcano eruptions. The other kind of ignition is human ignition, or any kind of ignition that comes from a human source. Human ignitions range from intentional arson to any kind of unintentional accident like an automotive incident, a downed powerline, or even a discarded cigarette.

The study did not find an increasing number of either type of ignition.

“We suggest that it’s more likely an interaction between accumulating fuel and changing climate,” Donovan said.

Climate change is an overarching issue that contributes to the conditions affecting wildfire activity across the country, and increasingly in the Eastern United States. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regularly issues dire warnings about the need for rapid and transformative action. Florida continues to experience the effects of climate change with higher risk of extreme heat, extreme storms, and wildfires.

Dr. Donavan said the Eastern United States is at particular risk because it has a more substantial wildland-urban interface.

“That's basically where wildland vegetation and human development intermingle,” she said. “It’s the place where we see the most damage from wildfires to human structures in human life.”

Catching these shift trends early gives communities a better chance to prepare by increasing preemptive fire management, to create evacuation plans, and to prepare our structures with fire resistant building materials.

Prescribed fire is another important tool to help reduce wildfire risk.

“We see what we call woody encroachment, which is a lot of shrubs and trees encroaching into what would have historically been more open savannas and grasslands,” Donovan said. “They become really dense and those fuels are then allowing larger, more intense fires to burn.”

Applying more prescribed fire helps reduce the amount of fuel accumulation so that large wildfires occur less frequently.

“Prescribed burning is extremely safe. There's very few incidents of prescribed fires escaping and getting out of hand,” Donovan said.

A number of regulations are in place for prescribed burning teams. There are designated areas and teams can only burn under certain conditions. They need to get permits before they burn as approved, and they have to have specific equipment, plans and personnel.

“Fire is a natural component of these systems. We can use prescribed fire and embrace that as an ecosystem management tool to help reduce fire risk,” she said. “By using prescribed fire to manage these systems and reduce those fuel loads, we can help reduce the incidence of wildfire, but also reduce their intensity so that when they do start, they're much easier for us to manage and suppress.”


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