Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Successful Prescribed Burns on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
10 Region, June 21, 2004
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Fire management personnel with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully contained a wildfire on June 21, thanks in part to reduced wildland fuels that resulted from a prescribed burn conducted this past February. Lightning from a storm on Saturday, June 19 struck two trees in the Quadrangle Fire Compartment, near an abandoned section of Highway 64 on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The lightning strike ran through the two trees to the ground and started burning in the organic duff accumulated on the forest floor. Apparently enough rain fell during the storm to dampen the woods a bit, and the fire was not discovered until Monday, June 21 after conditions began to dry. The fire spread very slowly with low intensity because the prescribed burn in February had already consumed most of the pine straw, leaves, small sticks, and shrubs leaving very little fuel above the duff layer. 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 made the decision that the fire was behaving mildly enough to suppress with a hose lay from an engine. The fire, named the Old 64 Fire, was contained within half an acre by that evening and mopped up by the next day.

Fire Management Officer Tom Crews noted: ?Swain made the correct decision to abandon the normal approach of attacking pocosin fires with tractors and plows. He ordered firefighters to carry fire hose the 100 yards or so to the fire and conduct a frontal assault on the head of the fire to avoid soil and vegetation disturbance that would have resulted from tractor use. He based this decision on the current and expected fire behavior and took full advantage of the increased safety factor of reduced fuels that prevented the fire from burning as intensely as we are accustomed to in pocosin fuels. The prescribed fire we conducted earlier this year in this section of the Quadrangle Compartment saved us a lot of hard work and enabled us to put a quick wrap on this fire at low cost.? A typical fire in heavy pocosin fuels spreads rapidly and intensely, requiring aerial retardant or water drops from fire control aircraft and the use of specialized fire tractors, all of which means increased suppression costs. For example, a June wildfire on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in an area not managed by prescribed fire cost an estimated $80,000 to suppress. The 286-acre Corapeake Fire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in May cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to suppress and tied up tremendous amounts of manpower and equipment for three weeks. Crews further noted, ?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.?

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. In areas like our coastal ecosystem with a history of natural and man-made fires, the vegetation and wildlife in these systems are adapted to fire. Prescribed burning mimics the role of natural fire and is an important tool for managing habitats. The resulting mosaic of burned and unburned areas in a prescribed burn unit provide excellent habitat for wildlife. Another benefit is that prescribed fire reduces ?fuels? ? the underbrush, branches, pine needles, leaves, and dead plants that build up on the forest floor or in the marshes over time. 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.

The Service has been able to treat 38,191 acres with prescribed fire on Alligator River National Wildlife 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. One example of this type of fire is the 1980 One Mile Miss Fire which burned 23,000 acres in two days and threatened 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. Undoubtedly, the most significant time was during the Roanoke Marshes Fire in May 2000, when a wind-driven marsh fire burned northwards towards Callahan Creek, just south of Manns Harbor Community. Burning embers were spotting a half mile or more in advance of the fast moving fire. When it burned up to the Callahan Creek prescribed burn area (burned in October 1999); however, the fire stalled in the green grasses growing in the rejuvenated marsh. Having this controlled burned buffer between the growing wildland fire and the Manns Harbor Community gave firefighters more time and options to plan and complete the suppression of this dangerous fire and protect the community.

Refuge Manager Mike Bryant commented, ?I feel it is important that we get these success stories from our prescribed burning program out to the public, especially to the residents in our neighboring communities-at-risk. Many of our experienced wildland firefighters travel around the country to suppress wildland fires, and they say there are two comments heard frequently in every community ravaged by wildland fire; ?This has never happened to us before in our community!? and ?We thought it never could happen to us!?. All communities that have volatile wildland fuels growing in close proximity to peoples? homes and businesses are at risk from wildland fires. On Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges, we take this threat very seriously and are working hard to reduce the risks. We use controlled burning, we establish firebreaks where feasible, and we work with our partners and community leaders on fire prevention and education programs.?

No contact information available. Please contact Larry Dean, 612-713-5313, larry_dean@fws.gov
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