How much Smoke will a Prescribed Fire Produce?

Prescribed fire is an important and widely used management tool, but the smoke produced can cause air quality issues and health problems. Before conducting prescribed fires, managers typically model the amount of smoke a fire will produce, which is directly related to the amount of fuel available.

“Most fire-effects models were developed in the western U.S.,” says U.S. Forest Service forestry technician Virginia McDaniel. “Their accuracy has not been well-tested in southeastern forests.”

In the southeastern U.S., prescribed fires are used to help restore pine-oak forests to their historic woodland condition. Prescribed fires also consume fuel that could otherwise lead to a catastrophic wildfire. Many plants and animals, such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, depend on these prescribed fires to maintain suitable habitat for their survival.

“Maintaining pine-oak woodlands in the Ouachita Mountains is most efficiently done with large landscape burns because optimal burning days are infrequent,” says McDaniel. “However, there are limits to the amount of smoke that can be emitted on a given day. Balancing the ecological benefit of burning with air quality standards is becoming increasingly difficult for fire managers.”

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