Newsroom Midwest Region

Keeping fire on your side: Working with our neighbors to grow firewise communities

April 27, 2020

A firefighter maintaining a controlled burn
A firefighter maintaining a controlled burn at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Katie Goodwin/USFWS.

Spring sunshine brings warm, fresh days to clean up the yard, hike or drive through the countryside. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know how many of you look forward to your yards and gardens growing and blooming every spring. We feel the same way! Did you know that sprucing up your yard could help fight off future wildfires? Take a moment to learn how we’re working with our neighbors to grow landscapes that are safer for wildlife and for people.

In addition to prepping for spring and summer restoration work, our field staff at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge near Tomah, Wisconsin look forward to the return of migrating birds and native plants after a long winter. Staff also keep an eye on the weather, because they know what comes next. A little more wind, a little more sun, less snow and more exposed dried grass that can feed wildfires. This is where being a good neighbor comes into play.

Our neighbors know that wildland firefighters and biologists use fire as a useful tool - both for restoring native habitat and for protecting lands and infrastructure from the danger of even stronger, hotter fires. Every year, staff strategically plan and carry out prescribed burns that replicate the most beneficial aspects of a wildfire. Keeping fire on our side is a yearlong process that allows plants and animals to benefit as we build in safety measures for people, private property and communities.

Earlier this spring, as the world faced unprecedented challenges with COVID-19, fire crews around our agency kept equipment and gear at the ready in the event of a wildfire. At Necedah, our team made additional adjustments to meet new safety requirements while still working together. As every first responder knows, preparation is key to any successful emergency response.

Fast response and preparedness

It was windy on the morning of Saturday, April 18. Smoke was reported along with an active wildfire on the refuge. Our fire team joined crews from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and multiple single engine air tankers, mounting a unified response to save neighboring homes and buildings. Evacuations were underway as our crews arrived. They assessed the fire and went to work to protect structures and reduce spotting fires.

Crews were faced with sustained winds of 24 miles per hour and gusts that topped 35 miles per hour, picking up large burning plant debris and floating it into unburned areas. The fire quickly began to spread through the refuge and neighboring properties, rapidly growing from 20 to 100 acres through a naturally dry habitat of oak-pine barrens. We pulled in additional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resources from Leopold Wetland Management District and the La Crosse District of Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. U.S. Forest Service crews brought in an additional dozer and operator from Chequamegon-Nicolet national forest to help contain the fire. With equipment and crews in place, staff were able to quickly turn the recently improved fire breaks into a fresh line of soil. Continued air drops and full wetlands helped slow the spread, and the fire was fully contained at 240 acres by the late afternoon. An additional week of extinguishing hotspots and monitoring helped ensure there were no additional flare ups in the area.

Wildland firefighters had one more distinct advantage fighting fire in this area. This unit on the refuge was restored with a prescribed burn in 2018. That burn helped clean up fire-prone fuels, reduce oak brush and create openings for wild lupine to expand – an effort to increase essential habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

A Karner blue butterfly on a wild lupine leaf
An endangered Karner blue butterfly on a wild lupine leaf. Photo by Joel Trick/USFWS.

Protecting your property

To stay aware of fire danger levels, home and property owners should check on state and local fire conditions daily each spring. Property owners should also invest in making their property firewise to better protect structures and surrounding areas. Ready to create your firewise yard? Contact Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to learn more about how you can protect your home from wildfires, while creating an inviting natural setting for people and wildlife to enjoy.