By Karen Miranda Gleason, USFWS
Although fire management has been an official Service program for barely three decades, fire is not new to lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the preface to his 1933 book Game Management, Aldo Leopold recognized fire itself as one of the five primary tools for managing wildlife habitat.
In 1931, Ornithologist Herbert L. Stoddard became the first researcher to establish a scientific connection between fire and wildlife habitat. He determined that fire played a key role in maintaining quality quail habitat in the Southeast. Other scientists followed in Stoddard’s footsteps. Much of this work took place on national wildlife refuges. Ecologists now know that more than 50% of refuge lands are part of ecosystems that need fire to thrive.
Early 20th century wildland fire management crew. (Photo: USFWS)
As America’s national campaign to fight wildfire grew strong in the mid 20th Century, refuge managers and biologists began expanding the use of prescribed fire on wildlife refuges across the Lower 48 States. For more than eight decades, the Service has been a recognized leader in using prescribed fire to manage habitat for a myriad of flora and fauna species.
However, the Service had no trained firefighters. This posed a safety hazard and risk for large wildfires, costly to both the agency and taxpayers. This risk became a reality in 1976 at Seney National Wildlife Refuge, with the most expensive wildfire in Department of Interior history at that time.
So in 1978, the Service appointed its first national fire director from the Bureau of Land Management. The need for professional firefighters was subsequently underscored when three refuge employees perished during fire operations after being overrun by flames. Richard Bolt died in 1979 at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, while Scott Maness and Beau Sauselein died in 1981 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
After these events, Congress provided the Service a fire budget. During the 1980’s, intensive firefighter training began for refuge staff. A team of Service firefighters hired from other agencies began traveling to refuges to give courses in fire safety, fire suppression, fire behavior, and prescribed fire operations.
Regional fire programs were established, more firefighters were hired, and proper fire equipment began rolling into refuges. With a continued focus on professionalism and safety since that time, Service personnel have managed more than 30,000 prescribed fires*, and another 15,000 wildfires, with no resulting fatalities.
Over the last 30 years, its Fire Management Program has become integral to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the Service employs more than 400 full-time wildland fire managers and support staff, as well as 200 seasonal firefighters, across the country. These dedicated employees remain at the ready, helping to manage and protect national wildlife refuges, national fish hatcheries, and other Service lands.
*from the Fire Management Information System (FMIS), 1982-2012: FWS prescribed fires: 31,691; FWS wildfires: 15,253
Karen Miranda Gleason is a Public Affairs Specialist in the Service's Branch of Fire Management