Forecasting air quality during prescribed fire

Prescribed burn Long Ridge Southeast Project Wayne National Forest

Prescribed burn in March 2022 for the Long Ridge Southeast Project on the Wayne National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Dan Anerino.

It’s already been a successful year for prescribed burns in the USDA Forest Service’s Eastern Region, where staff maximize the ecological benefits of fire for healthy forests while minimizing the impacts to air quality in nearby communities.

In the Eastern Region, most prescribed fires are lit in the spring. The southern tier — stretching from Missouri, Illinois and Indiana to Ohio and West Virginia — starts its season first because the snow melts there earlier. This year, through April 23, the southern tier has achieved a total of 66,094 acres of prescribed fire, dispersed across 79 separate burns, on national forest land. A highlight is Zone 2 on the Mark Twain National Forest (Eleven Point and Poplar Bluff Ranger Districts), which had a record year for prescribed fire.

It might seem surprising that the health of many forested landscapes depends on periodic fire. In places where fire has been suppressed, prescribed fire — a planned, managed fire — can mimic these ecological benefits. An added benefit? Areas treated with prescribed fire have a lower risk of wildfires that burn bigger and longer and pose a danger to nearby communities.  

While both wildfires and prescribed fires produce smoke, wildfires produce more smoke and impact communities for longer. Prescribed fire’s impact on air quality is minimized because fire managers monitor and select weather conditions that limit how much large woody debris is burned and transport the smoke in a desirable direction. The result is smaller, shorter burns generating fewer emissions, less particulate matter and lower impact to people. 

There’s another important number from this year’s prescribed fire program in the southern tier — 256 air quality forecasts delivered. Forecasts like these are the work of the Eastern Region’s team of air resource specialists, who use computer models and portable monitors to determine and predict air quality during and after prescribed fire events. These forecasts are critical to minimizing the air quality impacts and to ensuring that the public understands and can plan for any impacts that do exist.

On a single morning this spring, the southern tier air resource specialist provided an impressive 18 prescribed fire air quality forecasts. This number is just one measure of the commitment of our air resource specialist team to track shifting conditions and share up-to-date information with the public we serve. With their expertise, our national forests stay healthy — and so do our communities!