USGS fire research in the southeast

Wildfires have long played a key role in structuring ecosystems and plant communities in the southeastern United States. From the coastal prairie of Texas and Louisiana to the marshes and pinelands of Florida, many native species have adapted to a natural regime of frequent wildfire caused by lightning strikes. In addition, fires set by Native Americans and European settlers have influenced vegetation patterns in the Southeast for centuries.

The effects of fire are not subtle. Frequent fire can dramatically change the structure of a forest; for example, it can change a forest from one with thick underbrush to one with a parklike, cathedral structure. But while fire is essential to the maintenance of some ecosystems, it has long been viewed solely as a destructive force that needs to be controlled. Over the past several centuries, extensive fire suppression efforts have been one of the most pervasive human impacts on the natural ecosystems of this region, and, according to fire ecologists, altered fire regimes have contributed to the current threatened status of a number of native habitats in the southern United States.

The importance of fire in managing public lands in the Southeast has long been recognized. The largest controlled burn programs in the National Park System are carried out in this region of the United States in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Natural Preserve in Florida. Prescribed burning on public lands can help maintain the Southeast's unique species and ecosystems, and reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

However much remains to be learned about the effects of fire -- both natural and manmade -- on southeastern woodlands, wetlands and coastal prairies. USGS scientists are studying the fire ecology of the Southeast from a variety of perspectives. Efforts are under way to understand the complex ecological effects of natural fires, such as the massive North Florida fires of 1998, and to determine how fir

Contact: Catherine Haecker
United States Geological Survey

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