The central Alaska village of Ruby is adjacent to 2.1–million–acre Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge, where the landscape has been influenced over thousands of years by lightning–caused fires that have left a mosaic of black and white spruce, birch, alder, willow, shrubs and grasses. While natural fire is essential to the health of the ecosystem and the diversity of wildlife on the refuge, controlling such fire is essential to the safety of the 180 residents in Ruby.

To help protect the village, the Ruby Tribal Council turned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program.

Fifty–four acres have undergone hazardous fuels reduction since 2009. The program provides technical assistance and funding to reduce the threat of wildfire in communities within and near refuges by controlling “hazardous fuel,” the twigs, low–hanging limbs and other vegetation that ignites easily and burns rapidly.

So, one day last summer on a ridge above the Yukon River village, Service–funded tribal employees were moving through the woods, cutting and pruning trees, removing highly flammable black spruce and clearing a stretch of forest to create a firebreak between Ruby and the possibility of wildfire. Before long, the sky darkened and a thunderstorm rolled across the valley, underscoring the importance of the crew’s efforts in interior Alaska’s boreal forest, where summer lightning strikes are common.

Service fire managers helped the community develop a fire mitigation plan that was implemented in stages over the past four summers. Service funding enabled the tribe to purchase tools and safety equipment and to hire and train village residents.

Nowitna Refuge was established in 1980 to conserve fish, wildlife and habitats, in particular trumpeter swans, white–fronted geese, canvasback ducks, moose, caribou, marten, wolverines, salmon, sheefish and northern pike. The fire project gave the refuge a chance to be a good neighbor.

“When it comes to fire, our first priority is protecting life and then property,” says refuge manager Kenton Moos. “The hazardous fuels reduction funds help us do that. The program also provides some much–needed income in a community where jobs are scarce.”

Walking around the village with refuge fire management officer Ben Pratt, it’s easy to see what’s been done. Where once a thick black spruce forest came up to the edge of the road that rings the village, some trees have been removed and lower limbs have been pruned. Such thinning reduces the likelihood of fire moving into the canopy of the trees, where it can spread quickly.

Brush was piled neatly, before being burned in the fall after the threat of wildfire passed. Trees have been cut down to create a buffer around the village dump and thinned around the cemetery.

“If a fire crew had to come in to protect the town from a wildfire, they would be impressed and very grateful for the work that’s been done,” says Pratt.

For Ruby residents, the project brings a measure of comfort.

“I think they’re really happy knowing they’re safer from fire,” says tribal administrator Pat Sweetsir. “And the crew is glad to be doing work that helps the community.”

Maureen Clark is a fire information specialist in the Alaska Region office in Anchorage.