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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

Foresters find that prescribed fires can help keep carbon out of the atmosphere

  The bark of a Longleaf pine tree is on fire
Lynn Hatter
/
WFSU Public Media
The bark of a Longleaf pine tree is on fire

It’s wildfire season in Florida and one of the biggest threats of climate change is the increased risk of fires across the Southeastern United States. Yet fire, when controlled, can actually help fight the very threat it poses.

Fires are destructive: recall the 2018 Paradise Camp Fire in California that killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 buildings. That fire was ignited by failed power lines, but it gained steam due to a record drought and extremely dry conditions exacerbated by a changing climate. In the foothills of North Florida and South Georgia, there’s a similar, and lingering threat.

At the Jones Center in South Georgia, Longleaf pine trees stretch their gangly limbs to the sky. Underneath them, there's a patchy underbrush where creeping vines, juvenile pines, and all manner of bushy plants go through various incarnations of density—from tightly gnarled, to sparsely populated. And, it's on fire.

"We don’t want to burn everything, we want to burn one section at a time," explains Conservation Fellow Kurt Sigler, while standing in front of a four-wheeler with a giant flame thrower on the back.

  Foresters work on managing a prescribed burn at the Johns Center in South Georgia
Lynn Hatter
/
WFSU News
Foresters work on managing a prescribed burn at the Johns Center in South Georgia

"It [the man-made fire breaks in the road] keeps everything contained and makes sure it doesn’t go somewhere we don’t want it to go."

Sigler is working on a master’s degree in Forestry at the University of Florida and works at the Jones Center in South Georgia full-time.

The Center's work partly focuses on how controlled fires can combat dangerous wildfires. Fire in general releases carbon into the atmosphere. Too much carbon up there ends up trapping more heat on the surface, and causes temperatures to rise. Yet when it comes to these Longleaf Pine forests, and the carefully controlled fires here, a different kind of math is at play—one of risk and reward.

“During prescribed fires here we are emitting carbon into the atmosphere, but usually what we have is a regrowth of plant species," says researcher Josh Puhlick, "So in about 30-60 days, the net carbon uptake in this system is similar to pre-fire levels.”   

That means the fire-inspired new growth and natural regeneration process balances out the amount of carbon released by the fire. This, says Puhlick, is the best carbon scenario for the Longleaf Pine ecosystems of the region. More still, there’s another benefit of controlled fires, this time, on the ground.

"At the beginning, we all thought the burned plot would have less soil organic matter accumulation because all the debris would be burned off…but then we sampled the unburned plot," Florida A&M University Professor Yuch Ping Hsieh explains, highlighting his ongoing research with Tall Timbers, a fire ecology research center in North Florida.

Hsieh says during the course of his work on how prescribed fires help store carbon "we found that actually, the soil organic matter level matter in the burned plot is higher than the unburned plot.” 

 A pine cone slowly eaten by a creeping, prescribed burn
Lynn Hatter
/
WFSU News
A pine cone slowly eaten by a creeping, prescribed burn

Think about it this way: burning creates char and charred things keep the carbon in the soil longer. When that carbon is released, it comes out slowly, "it’s like your bank balance: if your input is the same but your spending rate is lower, you’ll see your balance increase," says Hseih.

In this case that slow release is actually a GOOD thing for the climate. This is all ongoing research, and Hseih says he doesn’t want to jump to conclusions.  Yet he notes that controlled burning is showing strong promise as a carbon sink—basically helping to store more carbon than is released. And that’s promising news for ongoing efforts to slow climate change impacts— while effectively, fighting fire, with fire.

*Editor's Note: This piece was created in collaboration with NOVA with major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Watch the documentary, Weathering the Future, on WFSU Passport, and join the conversation on social media with #ClimateAcrossAmerica.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.