New Project Will Study How Prescribed Burns Impact Health, Air Quality across the Southeast

When land managers in Florida or South Carolina or Georgia approve outdoor burns in their states, the resulting smoke doesn’t float to the state line and stop.

Yet there’s no unified way to track all of this burning across the Southeast and account for the resulting impacts on air quality and residents’ health. It’s especially an issue for a region where prescribed burns are the top source of fine particulate matter in the air.

School of Civil and Environmental Engineering researcher Talat Odman has just secured funding to help address the problem, bringing together all of the prescribed burn data from a region stretching from Texas to Virginia.

With support from the federal Joint Fire Science Program, the U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University, Odman and his team will marry the burn data with air quality data and cutting-edge computer modeling to understand the full impact of prescribed burns on air pollution and people’s health.

It’s a system Odman says will help land managers better plan prescribed burns and public health organizations better protect populations vulnerable to particulate matter in the air, such as the elderly, the very young, and people with existing respiratory problems.

“We want to optimize burns — which have higher demand than supply — and air quality at the same time,” Odman said.

In Georgia, for example, any open burning requires a permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission, and most burning is banned from May through September in the state’s most-populated areas. The burns are important to maintaining healthy ecosystems and preventing out-of-control wildfires, but Odman said the commission can’t keep up with requests.

“There’s so much demand in Georgia to burn, they cannot respond to all of it. Applications come in [to burn] 2 million acres a year, and last year they issued permits for slightly over 1 million acres,” he said. “So they could easily double the capacity.

“We’re looking at new windows of opportunity. If we had the regional forecast [we’re developing], we could do dynamic management.”

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Joshua Stewart
Civil and Environmental Engineering

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