Active management of both uplands and wetlands ensures high quality habitat is available for wildlife that depend on the refuge for survival. Water level management in the refuges 70+ impoundments, the use of prescribed fire, and control of invasive exotic plants are all critical components of refuge management.
Fire is a very powerful natural element that occurs throughout our planet. For tens of thousands of years, many ecosystems, including several in Florida, have adapted with fire and become dependent on a natural fire regime to maintain the habitat in a condition usable by native wildlife.
Wildfires from lightning are very common in some areas of the country, including here in Florida. In many cases, fires occur in areas where negative impacts are not realized. However, that is not always true. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other land management agencies have successfully introduced prescribed fire to the environment to allow this force to complete its natural role - only in a more controlled environment.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge fire management program includes approximately 15 fire-qualified employees. The goals of refuge prescribed fires are to (1) improve or restore wildlife habitat; (2) reduce hazardous fuel loads (therefore reducing the likelilhood of a catastrophic wildfire); (3) reduce encroachment of woody vegetation such as willow, wax myrtle, and exotic species that invade marshes; and (4) replenish nutrients to the soil. In 2008, more than 17,000 acres were burned on the refuge, primarily to improve Florida scrub jay habitat, reduce fuels around NASA facilities, and reduce woody vegetation in the impoundments.
Before any prescribed fire is started the refuge fire team, under guidance from the Fire Management Officer or Prescribed Fire Specialist, carefully considers many factors to ensure the burn will safely meet all management objectives. Weather forecasts, humidity levels, predicted wind speed and direction, fuel types, time since the last burn, and topography are all very important factors of preparing for any prescribed burn. All fire-trained / “red card” qualified firefighters who will assist with the fire attend a pre-burn safety briefing to discuss all aspects of the planned fire and identify what will be done in case the fire burns outside the controlled area or perhaps is not meeting habitat objectives. A small test burn within the unit allows for a field litmus test to make the final determination of whether the burn is a “go or no-go”.
During burn operations, communications among the fire staff are frequent and precise. Weather conditions are updated hourly, fire behavior is monitored, and safety remains the number one priority at all times.
Over the course of decades of prescribed fire, the achieved outcomes will be healthier scrub habitat, pine flatwoods and savannahs, and marshes. Improved habitat means more wildlife living in a dynamic and healthy environment.
Marsh Master - Photo by Jeff Schardt
As would be expected in the “lightning capital of the world” (central Florida), the refuge experiences frequent wildfires. Fire personnel monitor precipitation totals and the drought index year-round and prepare for response accordingly. Spring months typically see the most wildfire activity. Cold fronts moving through from the northwest as the season begins to change often bring many lightning strikes with little precipitation. During storms, weather radars with lightning indicators are monitored to determine the most likely location of a wildfire if indeed a dry front passes through. Aerial reconnaissance is sometimes completed to ensure all is clear before releasing fire staff for the day.
When a wildfire is spotted or reported, firefighters put on all required personal protective equipment (PPE) and respond to “size up” the fire and determine what resources are needed. Once the fire is "sized up" refuge fire fighters begin "initial attack". They use a variety of specialized fire equipment including type 6 engines, (four-wheel drive brush trucks with 250 gallon water tanks), ATV's ,tractor plow units( firefighting bull-dozers), a Marsh Master (tracked fire engine), and a Type 4 fire engine (900 gallon brush truck). Refuge fire fighters assigned to the engines deploy heavy duty hoses attached to water tanks and/or use hand tools to contain the fire at the smallest possible size. Other forms of initial attack are sometimes necessary for larger fires. A fire line can be plowed, with the tractor plow, a safe distance out ahead of the fire to remove fuels from the fire’s path, then a back fire can be set to burn towards the approaching wildfire. If needed aerial fire fighting equipment such as airtankers or helicopters can be ordered to drop fire retardant, use water buckets, or even drop "ping pong balls” (ignition spheres that combust when they hit the ground). A birds-eye view is also extremely beneficial when planning the course of attack on a wildfire.
Aerial Ignition - USFWS Photo
Fire and Your Home
Human and most naturally caused wildland fires are suppressed throughout the United States. Federal land management agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Forest Service combine their efforts to suppress destructive wildland fires regularly. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, is the headquarters for all Federal fire operations at the National level. The NIFC web site has current data addressing wildland fires in the United States.
If you live in the "Wildland Urban Interface" (where wildlands meet housing developments), there are several things you can do to protect your property. This protection scheme is refereed to as defensible space and basically requires a few days of hard work and generally good, sound common sense as you build structures and landscape your property. For more information and ideas on how to protect your home, visit http://www.firewise.org/