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

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As most of the United States enters the wildfire season, Auburn University wildland fire expert Heather Alexander, associate professor of forest and fire ecology, 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?

First, it is important to understand that not all forest fires are bad. Unintentional and uncontrolled fires, or wildfires, are the fires that we usually try to prevent, and the best way to do this is limit both fuel accumulation and ignition sources.

One accepted practice for preventing fuel build up is the periodic application of prescribed fire. Prescribed fires are planned extensively and set under very specific weather conditions and with proper personnel and safety measures to avoid fire escapes, smoke issues or extreme burning of forest trees and other forest resources. Prescribed fires not only reduce fuels but also serve many other important ecological functions, including increasing plant and animal biodiversity and reducing unwanted pests like ticks and chiggers. In fact, many forests, including those in the West, depend on fire for their perpetuation and regeneration. For example, some trees require the heat and smoke of fires for their cones to open and disperse seeds (a phenomenon known as cone serotiny). The problem is that we have intentionally suppressed natural fires for many decades, allowing fuels to accumulate and forest trees to grow very dense, conditions that promote rapid fire spread and high fire severity when ignited unintentionally. Climate warming is not helping the situation because fuels are much drier than in the past so more easily ignite.

Because fuels are so ignitable, another important way to prevent wildfires is to limit unintentional ignition sources by making sure to put out campfires and cigarettes and avoiding producing sparks from machinery or automobiles. Homeowners can limit risks associated with wildfires by performing simple safety measures around their homes, which are described here by National Fire Protection Association.

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

This summer’s wildfire season is predicted to be another bad one due to dry, warm conditions, especially in the U.S. West and Southwest, but also in parts of the coastal Southeast due to moderate to severe drought. Increasing rainfall chances are likely in the southeastern U.S. as hurricane season progresses, but there is increasing concern that heatwaves in the Southeast and Appalachians during July and August will increase fire potential. As of July 1, 2022, the National Interagency Fire Center reported that year-to-date acres burned for the U.S. was approximately 220% above the 10-year average, with most of the areas burned being in Alaska and the Southwest and South. Details about Alabama fire weather can be found through the Alabama Forestry Commission.

What is the annual economic damage caused by forest fires?

Unwanted forest fires create economic havoc in many ways. Costs include those associated with fire suppression, evacuations, widespread power outages, rebuilding damaged areas, predicting and preventing future fires and the health impacts from smoke. According to Joel N. Myers, AccuWeather founder and CEO, estimated costs of the 2021 wildfire season in the U.S. were between $70 billion and $90 billion, with about 50% of that being in California.

What are the most common causes of the fires?

More fuel, dense stands and dry conditions create readily combustible forests. Wildfires are spurred by decades of forest mismanagement through intentional fire suppression that allowed fuels to accumulate, especially in the relatively arid western and southwestern U.S. where decomposition rates of dead tree material are slow. Without regular, natural fires to clear the understory, forest stands have become very dense, so fire easily spreads from one tree to the next. In addition, climate warming has created drier fuels and longer fire seasons. In some regions, lightning ignitions have also increased with increasing thunderstorm activity. However, most ignitions are human caused, either through mistakes like throwing out lit cigarettes or leaving behind smoldering campfires, but also by sparks thrown from cars, tractors, electrical lines and other sources.

What is something that would amaze us about forest fires?

While seemingly counterintuitive, many plants and animals that live in forests require periodic fire to be healthy, and prescribed fire is an important tool for mimicking natural fires in most forest ecosystems. Since the early 1900s, the U.S. has intentionally suppressed forest fires. This has led to an accumulation of fuels and forest stands that are way too dense. We know now that many forests need fire, but this fire must occur regularly to prevent fuel build up and the fire from being too severe. Because we eliminated fire from forests for almost a century, we created fires that now burn in ways that the forests are not adapted to. Restoring fire disturbances through prescribed fires is critically important for reducing fuels and getting our forests back to a place where they are no longer a major threat for catastrophic fires.

About Heather Alexander:

Heather D. Alexander is an associate professor of forest and fire ecology in the College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Environment at Auburn University. Her research focuses on understanding forest ecosystem vulnerability in the face of changing fire disturbance regimes using observations across natural gradients and field-based experimental manipulations. She has studied the implications of fire suppression and “mesophication” on oak and mixed forests of the eastern U.S. for 18 years and has spent over a decade investigating wildfire implications for forest growth and regeneration dynamics in Siberian forests underlain by permafrost soils. She currently teaches undergraduate courses in forest ecology and forest fire management at Auburn.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Charles Martin in Auburn Advancement Communications at

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