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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands Modeled prescribed fire produces less carbon emissions through time than wildfires in a southeastern longleaf pine woodland

Director’s Choice
Yearly net ecosystem carbon productivity (or net carbon exchange in the ecosystem) of the various fire scenarios projected using the landscape disturbance model LANDIS-II. The 2-year prescribed fire and fire exclusion scenarios illustrate the most carbon stability through time, with high variability (high fire emission pulses) for the three wildfire scenarios. The fire exclusion (complete fire suppression) over hundreds of years is unlikely given the high wildfire frequency documented in the southeastern U.S. and beyond. (Image courtesy Steve Flanaga, Tall Timbers Research Station)


Prescribed fire is a common tool in southeastern pinelands, but it is unknown how prescribed fire compared to potential wildfire regimes influence carbon emissions and carbon sequestration potential in these systems. In this study, we ran model simulations of prescribed fire and various wildfire scenarios to quantify these differences. We found that through time carbon emissions are less by using prescribed fire on a two-year interval than any wildfire regime, notwithstanding the positive influence of prescribed fire on native biodiversity and species endemism.


Forests have a prominent role in carbon sequestration and storage, but are affected by various natural and anthropogenic disturbances, particularly fire. Understanding carbon storage in terrestrial ecosystems is particularly difficult when considering prescribed fire because each fire emits carbon but is balanced through time by vegetative regrowth after fire.

Quantifying the differences in carbon emissions between prescribed fire compared to wildfire regimes is critical to understanding long-term carbon storage potential. Also, pinelands in the southeastern U.S. risk changes in their structure and function, particularly loss in biodiversity and endemic species, when the fire regime they require is altered. In this study, we used a landscape simulation model to project how carbon and species dynamics differ under various fire scenarios, namely a fire exclusion, a prescribed fire, and multiple wildfire scenarios in a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill) ecosystem in southwest GA.

All scenarios except fire exclusion resulted in net emissions to the atmosphere, but prescribed fire produced the least carbon emissions from fire and maintained the most stable aboveground biomass compared to the wildfire scenarios. Removing fire for approximately a century was necessary to obtain aboveground forest carbon greater than that of prescribed fire and net emissions less than that of prescribed fire. Overall, this study supports prescribed fire regimes in southeastern U.S. pinelands to both minimize carbon emissions and preserve native biodiversity. Considering that prescribed fire is common tool in the southeast, and wildfires are ever more present, understanding the differences and positive outcomes of prescribed fire for carbon stabilization is critical for southeastern management.

Principal Investigators
Christie Hawley, Forester
Joseph O’Brien, Research Ecologist
Scott Goodrick, Project Leader/Research Meteorologist
Mac Callaham, Team Leader/Research Ecologist
E. Louise Loudermilk, Research Ecologist
4156 - Center for Forest Disturbance Science
Strategic Program Area
Fire and Fuels
Quantifying carbon and species dynamics under different fire regimes in a southeastern U.S. pineland
External Partners
Steve Flanagan, Kevin Hiers (Tall Timbers Research Station)
Susanne Wiesner, Greg Starr (University of Alabama)
Kier Kelpzig, Scott Taylor (Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center)
Smriti Bhotika (AAAS)
Robert Scheller (North Carolina State University)