Ben Poulter, Patrick H. Freeborn, William Matt Jolly, J. Morgan Varner
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Fire Communication & Education

Record updated: November 4, 2021
NRFSN number: 23836

Significance: The coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, led to strict social-distancing guidelines that severely impacted human livelihood and economic activity. Workplace closures reduced travel, and early in spring 2020, improvements in air and water quality, reduced seismic activity, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were observed. COVID-19–related shutdowns emerged at the beginning of the prescribed fire season in the southeastern United States, where 80% of fires are human caused. Using active fire satellite observations and fuel treatment statistics, we estimated a 21% reduction in active fires from March to December 2020 (up to 40% on federal lands). This reduction in active fire may increase fire risk in the future and is detrimental to biodiversity and other ecosystem services inherent to fire-dependent eco

Abstract: Fire is a common ecosystem process in forests and grasslands worldwide. Increasingly, ignitions are controlled by human activities either through suppression of wildfires or intentional ignition of prescribed fires. The southeastern United States leads the nation in prescribed fire, burning ca. 80% of the country’s extent annually. The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed human behavior as workplaces implemented social-distancing guidelines and provided an opportunity to evaluate relationships between humans and fire as fire management plans were postponed or cancelled. Using active fire data from satellite-based observations, we found that in the southeastern United States, COVID-19 led to a 21% reduction in fire activity compared to the 2003 to 2019 average. The reduction was more pronounced for federally managed lands, up to 41% below average compared to the past 20 y (38% below average compared to the past decade). Declines in fire activity were partly affected by an unusually wet February before the COVID-19 shutdown began in mid-March 2020. Despite the wet spring, the predicted number of active fire detections was still lower than expected, confirming a COVID-19 signal on ignitions. In addition, prescribed fire management statistics reported by US federal agencies confirmed the satellite observations and showed that, following the wet February and before the mid-March COVID-19 shutdown, cumulative burned area was approaching record highs across the region. With fire return intervals in the southeastern United States as frequent as 1 to 2 y, COVID-19 fire impacts will contribute to an increasing backlog in necessary fire management activities, affecting biodiversity and future fire danger.


Poulter B, Freeborn PH, Jolly WM, and Varner JM. 2021. COVID-19 lockdowns drive decline in active fires in southeastern United States. PNAS October 26, 2021 118 (43) e2105666118;

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