Newsroom Midwest Region

Creating firewise communities in Wisconsin

June 4, 2018

Controlled burn in Wisconsin. Photo by Derek Casbon/USFWS.
Controlled burn in Wisconsin. Photo by Derek Casbon/USFWS.

Living close to nature has its perks - peace and quiet, cool wildlife sightings and easy access to hunting, fishing and hiking. For several decades, we at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working with our neighbors and partners to make public lands safer and healthier for everyone. Learn about a recent success story in Wisconsin and how you can make your property firewise.

Not too far from the capital of Wisconsin is Shoveler’s Sink Waterfowl Production Area, 175 acres of oak savanna, grasslands and wetlands set aside for waterfowl and other wildlife. This protected area is part of Leopold Wetland Management District and is a great place to go birding, hunting or just get outside and go for a walk. Bringing back healthy habitats to the area is a constant fight against non-native and invasive brush species like buckthorn and honeysuckle, as well as spotted knapweed and purple loosestrife. For our neighbors, this battle against invasives can be loud and smokey to say the least. In the case of Shoveler’s Sink, and a lot of the other waterfowl production areas we manage, we take a community approach and see a real benefit to sharing habitat restoration efforts across our boundaries onto the private lands that surround these areas. By bringing our neighbors into the process, we all benefit.

Fire professionals refer to these sensitive areas as the wildland urban interface - roughly defined as the zone where natural areas and development meet. The interface has gained increasing importance as more Americans build homes in rural settings adjacent to public lands. We work closely with neighboring communities to reduce future wildfire risks to homes near National Wildlife Refuge System lands. You can help stop the spread of wildland fire to your property by creating what’s called defensible space, a buffer between the buildings on your property and the grasses, trees, shrubs and surrounding undeveloped lands. This space helps to slow or stop wildfire and keeps your house away from direct flames and radiant heat.

Fire Management Specialist Derek Casbon burning cattail. Photo by USFWS.
Fire Management Specialist Derek Casbon burning cattail. Photo by USFWS.

You might be wondering why we burn lands to restore them. It can seem counterintuitive when you see wildlife management activities like controlled burns, mechanical thinning and native seeding projects in progress. Seeing open flame and smoke or large machinery in a protected area without knowing the wider plan can leave people confused and irritated. That’s why we’ve been working over the years to reach out to our neighbors and explain our long-term goals for protected areas like Shoveler’s Sink. We do this the old fashioned way, going door to door. Meeting our neighbors face to face is an important part of creating these restoration projects.

Meet Fire Management Specialist Derek Casbon, he’s a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter with more than two decades of experience and while he’s an expert in restoring habitat, he’s also somewhat of a salesman. Casbon leads a fire management team that works year-round to plan and execute this type of specialized restoration across 17 counties in southeastern Wisconsin. Three years ago, Casbon started meeting with neighboring landowners across a two square-mile residential area near Shoveler’s Sink. Since then, he’s brought all the surrounding property owners into the project. Over the past two years, Casbon and his team have treated 57 acres of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land and five acres of private land through low to moderate intensity fire. Along with reseeding efforts, he’s seeing more native plants and wildlife in the area.

As native plants take hold, neighbors do too. “Whether it’s duck habitat, native birds relying on food and nesting, bees pollinating, nature enthusiasts enjoying the area or salamanders just being salamanders, the importance of maintaining such a valuable piece of land is obvious,” said Doug Post, caretaker for a nearby property.

Life will keep growing at Shoveler’s Sink and other waterfowl production areas at Leopold Wetland Management District. Casbon says that his team will continue to thin non-native plants in the area and keep alternating the burn cycle to maintain a healthy ecosystem. He’ll keep meeting up with neighbors and look for new opportunities to bring property owners on to the firewise team.

Learn more about Leopold Wetland Management District and how you can get involved.