A Talk on the Wild Side.
Gerald Vickers gives a briefing before the first-ever prescribed burn at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Courtesy D. Wells/USFWS
What does it take for a 30-year-old dream of using prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat to become reality? Mike Horne, refuge manager at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, knows: a lot of planning, communication and partners — and more than a little patience.
After many months of preparation, partners from multiple states and federal agencies finally came together in early April at the refuge just 26 miles west of New York City, to successfully and safely conduct the first-ever prescribed burn at Great Swamp. Horne’s staff joined forces with 34 firefighters from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the National Park Service, Albany Pine Bush Preserve, several refuges and the Service’s Northeast Region Fire Program to treat nearly 200 acres.
Since the early 1980s, the refuge had wanted to use fire to unclog ponds choked by the accumulation of live and dead plants because heavy equipment cannot be used in sensitive wetlands. The buildup kept waterfowl from using the ponds to stop, rest and feed during their migration.
For one reason or another, work to burn the ponds never materialized until 2016 when the refuge put together a comprehensive prescribed burn plan. “There is a great deal of up-front work that goes into making a fire successful before the drip torches are lit,” says Horne. Some of the most important advance effort, he says, “is communicating with neighbors and partners about how prescribed fire works.”
Thanks to the refuge’s outreach efforts, no one called to complain after the smoke became visible on the day of the fire at the suburban refuge because the public already understood what was happening and why.
Conducting a prescribed burn is no easy task. On the day of the burn, weather conditions must be right, and properly trained fire leaders must be present to ensure the safety of the public and firefighters — the number one priority on any burn. This requires close coordination with the National Weather Service and partners to make sure there are enough firefighters with the right skills.
“Fire is giving us the ability to recover these wetlands into manageable units, helping to remove layers of dead vegetation as well as trees and shrubs we have been struggling with for years,” says deputy refuge manager Lia McLaughlin. The project demonstrates that burning can be used as a viable tool to maintain grasslands in the Northeast, and shows how partners with limited resources can cooperate to achieve meaningful conservation goals across the landscape.
GERALD VICKERS, Regional Fire Management Specialist, Northeast Region