Management and Conservation
By reducing burnable vegetation on national wildlife refuges, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management professionals lower the risk and severity of wildfires and protect habitat for wildlife. To fire managers, burnable vegetation, such as grass, overgrown brush, trees or logging slash, is known as fuel. The two primary methods of fuels reduction are prescribed fire and mechanical thinning — removing brush or creating fire breaks.
The Service concentrates most of its prescribed fires and brush removal in what’s called the wildland urban interface — community edges where developed property meets undeveloped wildland vegetation, such as forest and swamp. These places are particularly prone to wildfire.
Prescribed fire helps the Service protect sensitive species. At Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, for example, the Service has used prescribed fire to promote the growth of milkweed and nectar plants vital to monarch butterflies and other native pollinators.
Prescribed fire is also key to the health of the Southeast’s longleaf pine forests, crucial to the gopher tortoise, the red-cockaded woodpecker and other wildlife. Working with conservation partners, wildlife refuges including Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida use prescribed fire to improve longleaf habitat. Partly as a result, the red-cockaded woodpecker was proposed for downlisting in 2020 from an endangered species to a threatened species.
At National Key Deer Refuge in Florida, the Service and partners use regular prescribed fires to preserve rare pine-rockland habitat that supports several threatened and endangered species, including Key deer.
In many ecosystems, wildfire is a critical natural process. But unplanned wildfire has the potential to damage refuge habitats and infrastructure, and threaten communities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperates with federal, state and local partners to suppress wildfires as soon as they start. This immediate response — known as initial attack — is critical to containing wildfires and ensuring public safety. Protecting human life is always the first objective. Protecting property and natural resources come next.
Reducing catastrophic wildfire requires community trust, cooperation and interagency partnerships. Fire managers strengthen community relationships by working with local officials, taking part in community events and meetings, and educating interested groups and individuals.
Service fire managers work closely with other fire agencies to keep communities, wildlife and ecosystems safe from the impacts of wildfire.
Methods used to prevent or lessen the intensity of wildfires on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands include cutting and removing excess vegetation as well as using herbicides to treat invasive vegetative species. Reducing excess vegetation protects communities as well as sensitive wildlife habitat. Data from a long-standing monitoring program help fire managers adapt project design and implementation to site-specific conditions.
Factors used to prioritize vegetative treatments include:
- Values at Risk: Service fire crews work with stakeholders to assess the ecological importance of landscapes and determine which values may be most at risk from wildfire. These may include wildlife species, sensitive ecosystems, culturally significant artifacts and community structures.
- Wildfire Potential: Fire managers review local risk assessment efforts and the condition of prior ignition areas to identify wildfire potential.
- Collaboration and Leveraging: Service experts work with partners to leverage assets, resources and capabilities across jurisdictional boundaries to accomplish treatments.
- Performance Measures: Fire managers prioritize projects that meet performance and accountability measures set out by Service guidance (PDF).
- Activities to Mitigate Risk: Fire managers identify the most effective and appropriate treatments to reduce risk of wildfires.
Post-wildfire recovery consists of emergency stabilization and burned area rehabilitation. These methods prevent further resource damage, restore fire-scarred landscapes and promote long-term restoration and recovery.
- Emergency Stabilization prevents further degradation of natural and cultural resources and protects life and property.
- Burned Area Emergency Response — used by all federal wildland fire management agencies — provides for the assessment and implementation of emergency stabilization treatments and activities. BAER teams have one year and 21 days from wildfire ignition to perform emergency stabilization actions. Such actions prevent further degradation to natural and cultural resources, minimize fire-related threats to life or property, or repair and replace physical structures to prevent degradation of land or resources.
- Burned Area Rehabilitation. Department of the Interior firefighting agencies have five years from a wildfire ignition to begin Burned Area Rehabilitation restoration actions. These authorize the repair or improvement of fire-damaged lands that are unlikely to recover on their own. BAR actions also repair or replace minor assets damaged by fire.
- Suppression Activity Damage Repair is generally completed before wildfire containment, but may be completed during the post-wildfire recovery phase. Prescribed actions aim to repair damage caused by the fire suppression effort.
Additional post-wildfire restoration activities are the responsibility of individual national wildlife refuges.
Working for the Service Fire Program
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighters are highly trained and specialized. Fire crews combine expertise in fire planning and operations, fire ecology, fire science, smoke management, hydrology, wildlife and fisheries biology, forestry, range conservation, soil sciences and water resources, fuels management and emergency management.
Entry-level firefighters receive training at Basic Fire School (Rookie School). Returning firefighters receive specialized training to advance their careers in wildland firefighting.
For those seeking work that is physically and mentally challenging, provides opportunities for travel, and serves a greater good, working for a wildland fire crew might be a good fit. Firefighters gain experience in prescribed burning, wildfire suppression and fire preparedness. The bulk of the work is from May through September.
Working for the Service fire program means being part of a diverse workforce that values differences in life experience, educational background and personal perspectives.