Auburn wildfire expert discusses wildfire season and how landowners can better prepare

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As most of the United States enters the wildfire season, Auburn University wildfire expert John Kush comments on what can be expected and how landowners and managers can help reduce occurrences and damage.

What is the best way to prepare land to help prevent forest fires in the future?

The best way to prepare land to help prevent forest fires is to reduce the fuel load that is present. Fire needs three things: oxygen, heat and fuel. There is very little we can done about those first two factors, but we can work on the fuel. Good portions of the South see fire every year through people conducting prescribed fires. Often the goal is to improve wildlife habitat, recreation and aesthetics, making forest management easier. Fires make this happen, but they also reduce the fuels available to burn. The smaller amount of fuel available to burn, the less intense the fire. If fire is not an option, there are mechanical means to reduce/remove the fuel, but these can be very expensive. The situation in California is one where fuels have accumulated over the past several decades due to a lack of prescribed fire management and people building homes/communities within forested habitat. Once a fire starts where the fuels are heavy and draped in trees and shrubs, they are very difficult to contain and dangerous to fight.

There are ways homeowners can work toward reducing the wildfire risks their homes face by making them “Firewise.” The National Fire Protection Association has some excellent information on its website to assist homeowners.

How does this forest fire season look when considering the current amount rainfall across the U.S.?

The fire season is very dynamic and can change in a matter of a few days. Just five to seven weeks ago, the Gulf Coast was experiencing drought conditions, while in Auburn we had nearly 10 inches of rain in April alone. Several fires were occurring from east of New Orleans, along the Gulf to central Florida. The rains arrived and right now there is little threat of wildfires in the Southeast. When you talk about the western U.S., their fire season typically runs from June to October. It can start earlier and go later depending on the weather conditions that year. Currently, Alaska is experiencing as many wildfires as is happening in the western states of New Mexico, Arizona and California. As the summer goes on, the threat of wildfires will move north, into the Rocky Mountains and then the Pacific Northwest. The problem in the western U.S. is the low humidity, sometimes in the single digits. Once the relative humidity drops below 20 percent, fires can easily ignite and spread, driven by winds that can be fairly common.

A good source to review is the National Interagency Fire Center’s website which has wildfire predictions. An excellent source of information about fire weather for Alabama can be found on the Alabama Forestry Commission site.

If you are interested in current drought conditions and the potential wildfire risk, check the

Keetch-Byram Drought Index and the Fire Danger Rating, both on the Wildland Fire Assessment System site.

Predictions for drought this summer are also available on the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center’s site. If you are interested in seeing where wildfires are currently happening in the U.S., visit the USDA Forest Service’s Active Fire Mapping Program site.

What is the annual economic damage caused by forest fires?

The annual economic damage caused by wildfires will depend on the length of the wildfire season and the proximity of the fires to homes/communities. The annual losses have been estimated to range from $63 billion to nearly $300 billion. In general, economic losses from wildfires will increase each year with expected changes in climate, becoming warmer and drier, leading to extended wildfire seasons. In addition, people will continue to move out into the wildland-urban interface making it more difficult to fight wildfires when they start.

What are the most common causes of the fires?

The most common causes of wildfires are human-related. Estimates have this as high as 85 percent. Many of them are unintentional, the result of burning debris, unattended campfires, careless disposal of cigarettes, malfunctioning machinery and more. And then you have the intentional act of arson. The major source of a natural cause for a wildfire is lightning strikes. 

What is something that would amaze us about forest fires?

In addition to fire being beneficial to many ecosystems and species, fires move faster when traveling uphill. A fire tornado can form when winds around a fire begin to spin. A large enough fire can produce its own weather system. Some species of pine trees need forest fires. The heat allows them to release seeds from their otherwise tightly sealed cones. Another benefit is that areas managed with fire have fewer ticks and chiggers than would otherwise.

About John Kush:

John Kush (retired) served as a research fellow in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in forest science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his master’s and doctorate, both in forest ecology, at Auburn. He conducted research for over 39 years with a focus on stand dynamics, fire effects and restoration and he taught several classes related to forest ecology. He currently teaches a forest fire management class and several classes in the restoration ecology graduate certificate program at Auburn.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.