Limits on work and travel during the pandemic also affected how humans interact with the natural environment. For example, satellites observed a reduction in managed forest fires, otherwise known as prescribed burns, on federal lands. Prescribed burns are an important way to reduce fuel loads and maintain biodiversity. In March 2020, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies temporarily suspended all prescribed burns on federal lands in the Southeast United States. State agencies in Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina also issued spring burning bans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forest Service’s suspension aimed to prevent virus exposure to employees and to reduce smoke exposure to vulnerable communities, since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.
Using fire data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite, researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center detected a 42% reduction in active fires in the Southeastern U.S. this spring compared to previous years.