In a prescribed burn, fire is used as a tool to manage vegetation, reduce wildfire fuel loads, and improve refuge habitats for wildlife. Specific weather and site conditions are required for each planned burn to control the extent and intensity of the fire, manage smoke, and maintain the burn within "prescription". If these conditions are not present the burn cannot take place. It is hoped that the required parameters will be met on at least a few days during spring "burning window". Specially trained refuge and fire personnel and fire extinguishing equipment will be on hand to ignite and control the fire and to insure public safety.
All prescribed burning will be conducted in accordance with Federal and State policies as outlined in the refuge Fire Management Plan. This will be the first year for prescribed burning at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge with plans to continue with prescribed burning in future years.
Prescribed burns are safely conducted annually on National Wildlife Refuges and other public lands throughout the country. The two or three burns planned at Wallkill River, totaling approximately 90 acres, are designed to reduce the amount of grass and thatch while maintaining and enhancing grassland nesting cover for many species of wildlife native to northwest New Jersey.
By burning the dead plant materials, nitrogen and other nutrients are released into the soil, providing nourishment for new plants. Fire also removes part of the litter, or duff layer, exposing the soil so that germinating seeds can take root and grow.
Prescribed Fire vs. Wildfire
Prescribed burns are controlled events that are carefully planned for, while wildfires are out of control catastrophic events. Prescribed burns are used in many areas to prevent conditions such as the accumulation of fuels (dead trees, twigs, leaves, needled, dead grasses) that lead to raging, out of control wildfires. This is particularly important during dry or drought conditions and in arid climates. Prescribed fires at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge are conducted to reduce the fuels and improve wildlife habitats.
Fire as a Management Tool
Most of the prescribed burning at Wallkill River NWR involves grassland habitats. Many of these areas have encroaching shrubs and many grasses that are not highly desirable to wildlife. Burning of these areas removes residual plant material and reduces the competition for the more desirable plant species. Prescribed grassland burns are of lower intensity and move across the fields at a slow to moderate pace.
Effects on Wildlife
Burning at Wallkill River NWR is normally concluded before many species begin nesting. Typically, wildlife species leave areas being burned as soon as they sense the fire. The signals wildlife respond to include sight, sound, smell, and increased temperature. Wildlife benefits of prescribed burns are observed immediately after the fire. Predators such as northern harriers, great blue herons, and red foxes are the first to reap these benefits. Prey species such as meadow voles, snakes, and frogs that move across burned areas with no concealing cover are easy targets. Within days new plant growth begins to emerge. Within weeks, little sign of the fire remains and herbivores feed on the tender young shoots of new plant growth.
Controlling the Fire
Prescribed burning requires long term planning. Staff members are trained and burn areas are prepared when needed. Each site has safety zones for personnel; in cases of an unforeseen problem and fire breaks to control the extent of the fire. Fire breaks are areas that will not carry a fire because if the lack of adequate fuels. Gravel roads, water and mowed or disked paths are common fire breaks used at Wallkill River NWR.
Specially trained refuge staff, with the assistance of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service firefighters and fire extinguishing equipment, are used to ignite and control the fire and ensure public safety. Specific weather and site conditions are required to control the extent and intensity of the fire as well as to manage smoke. If these conditions are not present the burn will not take place.
For more information related to prescribed burning, please visit the USFWS Fire Management website.