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The Southeast Coordinates Ongoing Discussion about Air Quality

We can all breathe a little easier for the work of the Southeastern Regional Strategy Committee (SE RSC). For those states represented by this RSC the enduring issues of prescribed fire and air quality are being treated with careful consideration. In April, RSC member Mark Melvin hosted state forestry fire chiefs, state agency air quality directors and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional representatives at the Jones Ecological Center. The goal? Improve information sharing and collaboratively address policies and regulations for states' air quality.

As usual, the interpretation of air quality policy, or particulate matter (PM) and what constitutes exceptional events, happens on a state by state basis. Managing or implementing PM 2.5 standards delivered by the EPA has always borne individual state application in this way, but the drive of the Southern Governors Association in accord with Cohesive Strategy collaboration has yielded this redoubled effort by Melvin and RSC members like Mike Zupko, chair of the Southeastern RSC.

Smoke rising from the hills behind a church.
Smoke from the Rock House Fire in Fort Davis, Texas, 2011. Photo credit: Anthony Conte.

All throughout the Regional Risk Analysis and Action Plan composed by the RSC is discussion of using prescribed fire in the south. How it has been done, how it is necessary, and how it is coordinated among fire chiefs and air quality directors, is the focus of ongoing discussion. Ecologically throughout much of the South, the region needs to use this tool every two to three years to control the amount of brush and hazardous forest material buildup that occurs on the ground. Wildfire is a reality regardless, but responsible management requires reducing accumulated loads of burnable fuel in these ecosystems, regularly, Zupko explains.

"There was a man in South Georgia who recently passed away," he recalls, "who was one of the oldest living registered foresters in the state. His registration number was three. Mine, issued in 1997, was 2,472, if that gives you some perspective. In the 1930s when he went to forestry school, he said if he drove from his home to the university and went for more than 15 minutes not seeing any smoke from a controlled burn, he thought, 'Something is going wrong with that community.'" In a region where fire season is 12 months of the year, and nearly 90% of land is owned privately, smoke can be a day-to-day reality that state officials handle.

The recent meeting that Melvin hosted among states and the EPA was a step in enhancing communication about the latest information and best practices in an ongoing way. "If we don't burn with prescribed fire it has a good chance of going up in wildfire, anyway," Zupko relates, tying this to Cohesive Strategy goals such as creating landscapes resilient to wildfire, and communities that are prepared to live with fire in the landscape. Ecologically and socially, this is not a new issue, but striving to optimize teamwork with region's states is a laudable undertaking that bodes well for successful actions by the Southeastern RSC.