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North Carolina

North Carolina

Successful Prescribed Burns Aid Firefighters in Suppressing Wildfires

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge - 2004

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel successfully contained a wildfire, dubbed the Old 64 Fire on June 21 at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and kept it to a half-acre, thanks in part to a prescribed burn that was conducted the previous February.

Prescribed fire is the controlled burning of vegetation based on a prescription that takes into consideration fuel type, fuel moisture, relative humidity, air temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and other atmospheric conditions to ensure a safe and successful burn. If these fuels are not reduced periodically, wildfires can become hot and destructive. Prescribed fire is more cost and energy efficient than other fuel reduction tactics, such as mowing or herbicides and creates much-needed habitat for wildlife.

"If this fire had occurred further east in the Quadrangle Compartment where we have not been able to prescribe burn, it would have spread much faster, burned much hotter and, under the wrong conditions, could have even jumped the highway and run towards the community of Manns Harbor," said Tom Crews, the Service's fire management officer at the scene. "The prescribed fire conducted in February saved us a lot of hard work and enabled us to put a quick wrap on this fire at low cost."

Lightening struck two trees in the Quadrangle Fire Compartment, near an abandoned section of Highway 64 near the refuge and ran through the trees to the ground where it ignited the forest floor. Apparently enough rain fell during the storm to dampen the woods a bit, and the fire was not discovered until two days later after conditions began to dry. The low-intensity fire spread slowly because the prescribed burn in February had already consumed most of the pine straw, leaves, small sticks, and shrubs leaving little fuel for another fire. The Service's fire crew and the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources responded to the fire with equipment, while a spotter plane circled overhead. Incident Commander Jeff Swain decided that the fire was behaving mildly enough to suppress it using hoses.

The Service treated 38,191 acres with prescribed fire on Alligator River refuge over the past 10 years. The highest priority controlled burns are in areas that will help protect communities from large fast moving wildland fires that have historically plagued the Dare County mainland. An example of this type of fire was 1980 One Mile Miss Fire that burned 23,000 acres in two days and threatened the Manns Harbor and Stumpy Point Communities. The Old 64 Fire is the third time in the past four years that prescribed burns have stopped or held back wildfires until firefighters could access and suppress them. Having this buffer gave firefighters more time and options to plan and complete the suppression of this dangerous fire.

"All communities that have volatile wildland fuels growing in close proximity to homes and businesses are at risk from wildland fires," said Bryant. "On Alligator River and Pea Island national wildlife refuges, we take this threat very seriously and are working hard to reduce these risks."

Incident Commander and USFWS Firefighter Cory Waters mops up burning soil near the source of the "Old 64 Fire" (USFWS)

Incident Commander and USFWS Firefighter Cory Waters mops up burning soil near the source
of the "Old 64 Fire" (USFWS)

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