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Modeled Prescribed Fire Produces Lower Carbon Emissions Through Time Than Wildfires in a Southeastern U.S. Longleaf Pine Woodland

Photo of Prescribed fire is used by national forests, like the Oconee National Forest in Georgia, to improve wildlife habitat and reduce hazardous fuel loads. 
Prescribed fire is used by national forests, like the Oconee National Forest in Georgia, to improve wildlife habitat and reduce hazardous fuel loads. Snapshot : Prescribed fire is a common management tool in southeastern pinelands, but it is not known how prescribed fire compares with wildfire in terms of carbon emissions and carbon sequestration potential in these ecosystems. USDA Forest Service scientists at the agency's Southern Research Station ran model simulations of prescribed fire and wildfire to quantify these differences. Carbon emissions were lower with prescribed fire use on a two-year interval than any wildfire regime, in addition to the benefits of prescribed fire for native species' biodiversity and habitats. 

Principal Investigators(s) :
Loudermilk, E. Louise 
Research Location : Georgia
Research Station : Southern Research Station (SRS)
Year : 2019
Highlight ID : 1552

Summary

Forests have a prominent role in carbon sequestration but are affected by various natural and human disturbances, particularly fire. Understanding carbon storage in terrestrial ecosystems is particularly difficult when considering prescribed fire, because each fire emits carbon but is balanced over time by vegetation regrowth after fire. Quantifying the differences in carbon emissions between prescribed fire and wildfire is critical to understanding long-term carbon storage potential. Also, southeastern pinelands face changes in their structure and function, particularly loss in biodiversity and endemic species, when their required fire regime is altered. USDA Forest Service scientists at the agency's Southern Research Station simulated how carbon and species dynamics differ in a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem in Georgia under three fire scenarios: fire exclusion, prescribed fire, and multiple wildfires. With the exception of fire exclusion, all scenarios resulted in net carbon emissions to the atmosphere; however, prescribed fire produced the lowest carbon emissions and maintained more stable aboveground biomass than the wildfire scenarios. The fire exclusion scenario required approximately 100 years to obtain above ground forest carbon greater than and net carbon emissions less than that of the prescribed fire scenario. Overall, this study supports the use of prescribed fire in southeastern pinelands to minimize carbon emissions and preserve native biodiversity. 

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • , Christie Hawley - SRS
  • Joseph J. O’Brien - SRS
  •  Mac A. Callaham - SRS
  •  Scott L. Goodrick - SRS
  • Tall Timbers Research Station
  •  Ecological Research Center
  •  North Carolina State University
  •  University of Alabama?