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Prescribed Fire Smoke, Public Health, and COVID-19

This post was developed with input from partners including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Southern Regional Extension Forestry, and the Southern Fire Exchange.

Last updated May 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many agencies, organizations, and private landowners wondering how to balance public health concerns with the need to implement prescribed fire, particularly if restrictions related to the pandemic continue for months or even longer. As the South Carolina Forestry Commission noted when announcing their state-wide burn ban, wildland fire smoke can exacerbate symptoms of those who have COVID-19, trigger underlying respiratory issues in non-infected people, and even cause symptoms similar to COVID-19 that may cause those affected to seek medical care at a time when resources are already stretched thin.

On the other hand, prescribed fire is an essential tool to achieve many land management objectives, particularly wildfire risk reduction. If restrictions related to COVID-19 continue for months or even longer, a lack of prescribed fire application could increase the likelihood that communities already struggling to cope with COVID-19 could be forced to deal with wildfire impacts as well.

There is no easy way to balance these competing factors. However, the following resources may be helpful to those making difficult decisions regarding prescribed fire implementation in the era of COVID-19. Some of these resources are available in the Smoke & Health Information section of our Smoke Management page. 

Please note that if you are considering burning, only do so if you can comply with your local jurisdiction’s regulations while ensuring the health and safety of those burning with you. If you do burn, seriously consider using one of the smoke management tools listed under the Smoke Tools section of our Smoke Management page to minimize impacts.

Wildland Fire Smoke and Health

Much of the information and research on the health effects of smoke is based on smoke from wildfires. Recent research has found that different methods used to measure smoke exposure from wildfires and prescribed fires make it difficult to compare the two. There is a need for additional research in this area, however it is generally thought that emissions from prescribed fire are much lower than those emitted from wildfires, as demonstrated in Figure 1. Wildfire smoke may also contain smoke from structures, vehicles, and other man-made objects in addition to smoke from natural fuel sources.

Prescribed Fire and Wildfire Risk Reduction

It is well understood that prescribed fire reduces the risk of wildfires, particularly so-called catastrophic wildfires, in the Southern United States. However depending on the specific ecosystem, that risk reduction may only last a few years, and is in the longer-term dependent on repeated prescribed fire or other management.

Smoke Adaptation Resources

If you do choose to continue burning, consider providing resources to impacted communities that will allow smoke-sensitive populations to mitigate health impacts. Use a smoke management tool to minimize impacts, particularly on sensitive populations. Keep in mind that the economic impacts of COVID-19 may leave households less able to take measures that require purchasing equipment like air filters.

COVID-19 Illness Information

These resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cover COVID-19 symptoms and precautions for vulnerable populations. For detailed information on how COVID-19 is impacting your community, contact your local public health officials.