Fighting fire with fire

Prescribed burns on refuges improve wildlife habitat, reduce wildfire risk

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service depends on support from other fire agencies, like this firefighter from the U.S. Forest Service, to conduct prescribed burns.  Credit: Brian German/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service depends on support from other fire agencies, like this firefighter from the U.S. Forest Service, to conduct prescribed burns. Credit: Brian German/USFWS


By Meghan Snow
July 10, 2019

Snow-capped mountains and blue skies sat in sharp contrast to the red flames burning slowly across the dried cattails and bulrush on an early spring morning in northern Nevada. Brian German, a fire operations specialist, led his team of firefighters as they used drip torches to ignite the dry marsh and build a steady line of flames to create a “blackline” around the perimeter of a wetland unit at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Not long after, one of the firefighters lobbed a firing device into the center of the unit, which exploded to create a slow fire that crept outward toward the blackline.

Brian German, fire operations specialist, says, “Restoring fire to the landscape is a necessary tool for managing wildlife habitat and reducing fuel loading to prevent major wildfires.”  Credit: Brian German/USFWS

Brian German, fire operations specialist, says, “Restoring fire to the landscape is a necessary tool for managing wildlife habitat and reducing fuel loading to prevent major wildfires.” Credit: Brian German/USFWS

“These fires mimic the behavior of healthy fire in nature,” said German. “They leave behind a mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation, which provides protection for animals to hide from predators, while clearing out bulrush and cattails so waterfowl and other birds can get in there and lay eggs.”

German is one of approximately 40 firefighters working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Pacific Southwest Region’s 47 refuges in California, Nevada and the Klamath River Basin of south central Oregon. In addition to battling blazes, Service fire crews conduct prescribed burns to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

The Service uses prescribed burns on a regular basis to control invasive grasses, improve habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, retain old-growth forests, and reduce excess vegetation called “hazardous fuels” that drive wildfires. While prescribed fires can take place year-round, fire managers often target specific times of the year to minimize impacts to nesting sites and ensure burns are conducted under conditions that optimize fire control.

“Restoring fire to the landscape is a necessary tool for managing wildlife habitat and reducing hazardous fuels to prevent major wildfires,” German said.

Firefighters create a “blackline” on the refuge unit identified for the prescribed burn. Doing so helps control how far the fire can expand.  Credit: Brian German/USFWS

Firefighters create a “blackline” on the refuge unit identified for the prescribed burn. Doing so helps control how far the fire can expand. Credit: Brian German/USFWS

Prescribed burns are planned by the Service’s fire staff and refuge managers.

“We match the type of burn needed to improve the habitat with the fuels reduction need,” said Dale Shippelhoute, Pacific Southwest Region fire chief. “Each fire has a different purpose.”

In 2018, the region safely burned more than 20,000 acres of refuge land in prescribed burns.

Meticulous planning is essential to each fire’s success and ensuring the safety of the firefighters and neighboring communities. While staffing a fire is dependent on the size and complexity of the unit to be burned, a typical fire requires 10-20 firefighters on-site and takes an entire day to conduct.

Dale Shipplelhoute, regional fire chief, and James Roberts, fire ecologist, review plans for a prescribed burn on oak savannahs at Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.  Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Dale Shipplelhoute, regional fire chief, and James Roberts, fire ecologist, review plans for a prescribed burn on oak savannahs at Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

The actual fire may only take a couple of hours to burn, but firefighters are required to monitor the unit for several hours afterward to ensure the fire has been extinguished. Because the Service’s fire team is relatively small and spread throughout the Region, firefighters from larger federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, as well as from state, county and municipal fire departments, often provide support.

“It’s critical for us to work with other federal agencies on fires,” said Shippelhoute. “When we help them battle large wildfires, they help us in return with prescribed burns in the off-season.”

Once a burn plan for a unit has been developed, the waiting game begins.

Shippelhoute reviews a map of the refuges, here pointing out the location of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

Dale Shippelhoute reviews a map of the refuges, here pointing out the location of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS

“We can’t burn until we get the right conditions,” said Shippelhoute. “The vegetation has to be dry, the wind speed and direction has to be just right, and we need to make sure the air quality is at a good level so neighboring communities aren’t heavily impacted by the smoke.”

When those conditions are met, a team of Service firefighters is sent out to conduct a test burn, and if that goes well, a full burn can be implemented.

Prescribed burns in the region cover a variety of habitats, from dried wetlands and grass-covered uplands to oak savannas and ponderosa pine forests. Wildlife on the unit is considered in advance of every burn. Fortunately, prescribed burns are typically slow moving and provide wildlife with time to get out of the way. After the burn, it is not unusual for wildlife to come back the next day to eat grains that fell off burned vegetation or that rodents left behind. In fact, just days after the prescribed burn at Ruby Lake, sandhill cranes flocked to the area to feast on grains that fell to the ground when the vegetation was burned.

Wildlife returns to burn areas fairly quickly. These sandhill cranes returned to the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge burn area the day after the burn to feast on grains left behind.  Credit: Pete Schmidt/USFWS

Wildlife returns to burn areas fairly quickly. These sandhill cranes returned to the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge burn area the day after the burn to feast on grains left behind. Credit: Pete Schmidt/USFWS

But prescribed fires aren’t the only way the Service’s fire staff reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire on refuges.

“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into preparing for fire,” said Shippelhoute. “We take on a variety of projects that help us decrease fuel loading to slow or stop fires on refuges.”

Service firefighters work with refuge staff to use disking tractors to create firebreaks in strategic locations on refuges, remove dead and dying brush and trees to keep the landscape healthy, and spray to control invasive vegetation.

“Projects to reduce fuel loading help refuges in a number of ways, including clearing canals of vegetation that impedes water flow, removing undergrowth to improve floodplains and retaining old-growth trees or forests that are important to wildlife,” said Shippelhoute.

Firefighters work with other agencies to battle wildfires. Here, a Service firefighter monitors the Rim Fire, which occurred in Yosemite National Park in 2013.  Credit: USFWS

Firefighters work with other agencies to battle wildfires. Here, a Service firefighter monitors the Rim Fire, which occurred in Yosemite National Park in 2013. Credit: USFWS

During the height of fire season, Service fire crews also fight wildfires across the West. Last year, Service firefighters battled extensive blazes in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. On average, Service fire crews go out on three major wildfires a year for two weeks at a time and work alongside other federal and state agencies, municipal fire departments and private contractors to battle the blazes.

“Prescribed burns give our younger firefighters needed experience and our veteran firefighters opportunities to refresh basic skills that are needed in wildfires, such as participating in complex or simple burnouts and backfires, which help strengthen control lines,” said German.

With the 2019 fire season already underway, the region’s refuges and firefighters are well-prepared for what is anticipated to be another challenging year.

In the off season, Service firefighters keep their skills sharp through training exercises, like  Nick Vallardo, shown here performing a single hoselay.  Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

In the off season, Service firefighters keep their skills sharp through training exercises, like Nick Vallardo, shown here performing a single hoselay. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

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Meghan Snow

About the writer...

Meghan Snow is the congressional affairs specialist for the Pacific Southwest Region. An avid biker, runner and snowboarder, she brings her love for the outdoors to the office every day, promoting the Service's conservation work throughout the region.

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