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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Fire in the Sea

  refuge sign on prairie with smoke in air A fire burns at the wilderness boundary on Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mike Granger/USFWS

Right now (as of August 29), more than 19,000 firefighters are deployed to fires in 13 states. More than 2.2 million acres are actively burning across the United States, and the National Preparedness Level is at level 5, the highest it goes.

These fires are bigger, hotter, and deadlier than any fire most of us have ever heard of or experienced, and 2018 is shaping up to be one of the most serious on record. During fire season in the West, firefighters from various federal, state and local organizations around the country, work together to take an all hands, all lands response. (Firefighters from Australia and New Zealand are helping out, too.)

 smiling man with FWS hardhat

Mike Granger (at right) is a fire management officer in sagebrush country who leads one of the interagency fire response teams. Stationed at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, Mike not only oversees fire operations across all national wildlife refuges in the state but also serves as Chair of the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group (NRCG.) The group brings together federal and state fire managers in the region to establish policy and support Incident Management Teams.

“I think this is the best fire management officer job in all of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Mike says. “I always wanted to work for Fish and Wildlife my whole life. Eventually when I got here, I knew this is where I will always be because of our mission.”

Like many working in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mike went to school to become a wildlife biologist. His life changed forever 30 years ago when someone put a torch in his hand and told him to conduct a prescribed burn on an Oklahoma prairie.

“I started realizing that as far as management of wildlife goes, there's probably not one single management tool that has as great an impact on as many species as fire,” he says. Since then, Mike has kept his feet to the flame, conducting prescribed burns and responding to wildfires, first in Alaska and now in America’s sagebrush country.

One month ago, on July 30, Mike and 70 other firefighters working in the NRCG successfully contained the 2,100 acre Wawa fire on Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The fire scorched 800 acres of greater sage-grouse habitat. As a species of conservation concern, this made containment of the Wawa fire a top priority for the NRCG. “We’ve been given a Secretarial Order to limit impacts on sage-grouse habitat,” Mike explains. “While we don’t manage for a single species, we do want to prevent this species from being listed, and any type of management has benefits for multiple species.”

   dry brown ggrasslands with black areas throughoutAn aerial photo of the Wawa fire. The burned areas are sagebrush habitat. Photo by USFWS

Despite the sometimes devastating effects of wildland fire, biologists, ecologists, foresters and other managers know that not all fires are bad. “If you have a home where a wildfire is bearing down, there is nothing good about that fire,” Mike says, “So when we talk about the natural benefits of fire, it’s very different from the destructive aspect of fire in our urban interface.”

As one of our planet’s natural processes, plants and animals native to North America evolved with the types of fires that occurred in their habitats for hundreds and thousands of years. “Fire is just as important as rain, but it doesn’t have to occur as often,” Mike explains. “You can delay it, but officially, fire will get onto the landscape no matter how much you try to protect it. You can’t take it off the landscape.”

The types of fires we’re experiencing in sagebrush country today aren’t exactly the norm. Traditionally, a fire in the sagebrush would need to jump from bush to bush to spread. This would typically require specific weather conditions, like strong winds, to push the fire along.

However, the sagebrush sea is seeing a sea change. Non-native grasses such as Japanese brome and cheatgrass are disrupting the delicate balance of this ecosystem. After filling in every available space of bare ground, the grasses then dry up, and according to Mike, feed a type of fire that “runs through [the grass] like it’s gasoline.”

In addition to posing a threat to human safety, cheatgrass and Japanese brome have negative impacts on local economies, wildlife health, agricultural productivity and recreational opportunities. Fast to spread and hard to control, an estimated 100 million acres of public and private lands are impacted by these fire-feeding grasses.

Figuring out how to keep invasive grasses from increasing their territory while restoring the fire cycle to its natural state is one of the leading challenges land managers in the West currently face. Luckily, Mike is up to the challenge.

“I take great delight in being able to do my job across the sagebrush landscape because I know what the benefits are long past when I’m gone,” Mike says. “That is conservation in a nutshell—not how it benefits me, but how it benefits generations way past me. I hope that 100 years from now, people can say, ‘Look what they’ve done across this landscape,’ and I will have been a little part of that.”

 

If you want to help fight the fight against invasive grasses, clean your gear before entering and exiting public lands. Learn more at http://www.playcleango.org/, then come visit us at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

 

Story by Jennifer Strickland, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Region.

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