Drought, Fire, and Forests

More than 6,300 firefighters from all over the U.S have been fighting forest fires that have now burned more than 119,000 acres in eight states across the Southeast, some of which have burned for over a month. The low humidity and lack of rain for more than three months in some areas has provided what Adam Rondeau from the inter-agency Southern Area Coordination Center was quoted as calling “the perfect environment for fires to spread.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows areas of exceptional drought — the highest level on the monitor’s scale — occurring across parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, with the entire Southeast now in moderate drought or worse. According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center Climate Perspectives Analysis, several stations in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have had the driest three-month period (from mid-August to mid-November) on record, and others rank in the top ten driest category. With little or no rain predicted for the Southeast in the near future, the drought and forest fires could go on for months.

As temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change under climate change, it’s likely that drought – and associated disturbances such as insect outbreaks and wildfires – will only get worse across many areas of the U.S. Large stand-level changes in forests are already underway in many parts of the West, but all U.S. forests can be impacted by drought, as can be seen now in the Southeast, where record-breaking drought fueled the outbreak of hundreds of wildfires.

How can forest managers address the impacts of short-term and long-term drought conditions and manage their lands for a hotter and drier future? A report published earlier this year by the U.S. Forest Service provides a national assessment of the impacts of drought on the nation’s forests and rangelands and gives the scientific foundation needed to develop strategies that managers can use to increase the resiliency of their forests.

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