Refuge Partners Conduct First Controlled Burn
The hopes and dreams of Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge recently went up in smoke and that’s just the way the refuge wanted it. For years, regional fire and refuge staff worked to return fire to the land as part of a plan to reduce fire risk to neighboring communities and maintain wildlife habitat, including that of the rare New England cottontail. Finally, all the planning became reality as the refuge successfully completed a 10-acre controlled (prescribed) burn in the Town of Mashpee on April 5.
George Baker, Chief of the Mashpee Fire Department, thanked Refuge Manager Libby Herland for making “Mashpee Refuge fire management/fuels reduction issues a priority early on and continuing to support actions that eventually led up to a successful prescription fire.”
Baker also acknowledged the leadership of Deputy Refuge Manager Tom Eagle in bringing a long standing vision of a collaborative burn to fruition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Town of Mashpee, and State of Massachusetts combined forces to pull off the burn. “Tom’s persistence paid off.”
“It all started in 2006 when we set up a team to assess the wildfire risk to the refuge”, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Fire Planner Rick Vollick. Mashpee, located on Cape Cod, had been identified by the State of Massachusetts in 2001 as a community near federal land that was at risk of wildfire.
The team included representatives of refuge landowners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Town of Mashpee, State of Massachusetts, Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, Inc. Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge is unique in that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns less than 10 percent of the almost 6,000-acre refuge.
Once an area that burned frequently with natural fires, Cape Cod is now a tinderbox with an understory of tall oak shrubs. Combined with a canopy of pitch pines with flammable resins, the oaks pose a hazard for carrying any fire on the ground up into the tops of trees. There, fires can burn explosively and throw sparks which can blow in the wind for miles and ignite buildings.
In 2009 and 2010, refuge partners completed first steps of a plan to reduce fire hazard developed by the assessment team, and written by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC . They improved fire truck access and fire breaks by clearing trees and brush along refuge roads using chainsaws and small tractors with a grinding head. The next step was to use prescribed fire to clear the understory by burning the oak “ladder fuels”.
On April 5, 2012, Carlson took that step as burn boss on the first prescribed burn in Mashpee in recent times. The burn was collaboration not only with partners, but within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well. “This is a perfect example of cross-programmatic coordination,” said Tom Eagle. “We had Refuges. We had the Fire Program. We had Endangered Species and we had the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which funded the burn. We were one Service.”
Breathing fire back into Cape Cod protects homes for people by reducing fire risk, but it also improves habitat for the New England Cottontail, a candidate for listing under the endangered species act. Although tall, scraggly oaks above ground are consumed by controlled burns, fire stimulates sprouting from below, promoting a dense thicket preferred by the rabbits. Pitch pines, with fire resistant bark, are not harmed.
Chief Baker noted the dual benefits of the fire, saying it “completed two important management actions at once.” Once a skeptic about controlled burning in Mashpee, he added “As a Fire Chief who formerly held a position that prescription fires were not ever going to happen, I now have firsthand experience that with the right crew and the right weather conditions, prescription fire can be right for Mashpee’s fire-dependent ecosystem.”
Tom Eagle agreed that fire is right for Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge and this was a great start in restoring it. “All the years of planning were worth it. All the partners are happy and I am happy. But this was only 10 acres and all of Cape Cod is like this. There’s a lot more work to be done.”