Human behavior has rapidly shifted from fire-promoting to aggressively attempting to minimize its magnitude and variability. Today, most countries enforce policies and laws that dictate when humans can ignite fires for the purposes of conserving fire-dependent ecosystem services. This shift in human use of fire is an example of unprecedented global environmental change that that needs to be accounted for in efforts to conserve biological diversity and sustain ecosystem services unique to fire-dependent ecosystems. I present two novel approaches emerging in the Great Plains. These include (i) findings from a series of extreme fire experiments, which were designed to target conditions well outside of typical prescribed burn conditions and assess the potential to restore grassland dominance following woody invasions, and (ii) a new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) prototype designed as a cheaper and safer alternative for conducting aerial ignitions.
Extreme fires during drought (i) overcame the resilience of Juniperus woodland and restored grassland dominance and (ii) yielded significant levels of mortality among mature woody resprouters. These vegetation responses had not been quantified previously in the southern Great Plains, and ultimately reveal that socially-imposed constraints governing when prescribed fires are conducted is limiting our expectations for ecological response dynamics in science and practice. New innovations that overcome modern social limitations are therefore needed if prescribed fire is to once again become a dominant process driving structure and function of Great Plains ecosystems. To address this need, a UAV prototype has been developed for aerial ignitions. This technology has the potential to downscale the risk and costs of helicopter-based aerial ignitions, thereby offering new groups, such as prescribed burners in the private sector, the opportunity to use a type of technology previously limited to agency professionals and wealthy landowners. However, moving past experimental and technological trials, and toward meaningful discussions of the applications of extreme fire and UAV aerial ignition, will require more progressive legal frameworks that more appropriately reflect current non-stationary views of social-ecological systems in the Anthropocene.