Fire Management

Prescribed Burn

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Plan (FMP) covers approximately 10,778 acres of National Wildlife Refuge lands, in Phillips County, Kansas.  


 Wildfire is one of the primary natural disturbances of the native prairie. Historical records describe huge prairie fires started by lightning or humans. Fire burned millions of acres, as there were few natural fuel breaks and no suppression. Historic fire frequency in these grasslands is believed to be 5–10 years.  

Prior to the twentieth century, the role of fire in the prairie had been one of continued perpetuation of the prairie ecosystem. Fire restored vigor to plant growth, increased seed production, released nutrients, and reduced accumulations of litter. Since the early 1900s, and the establishment of the refuge, nearly all fires within the boundaries have been suppressed, and the adjacent habitat has been fragmented by agricultural practices. These activities have significantly reduced the role of fire as a vital element of the prairie ecosystem.  

Prior to dam construction, the mixed and tall grasses were diverse and unique, with the forests and woodlands rare, in the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem. Summer fires, periods of drought, and herbivory helped to maintain the prairie, with fire suppression reducing the woody vegetation. The fire season in north-central Kansas generally corresponds with weather patterns which produce lightning, most prevalent beginning in early April and continuing through September. Dry lightning is most likely to occur during drought years.  

Fire—A Critical Natural Process  

In ecosystems in the prairies of the Great Plains, vegetation has evolved under periodic disturbance and defoliation from bison, fire and drought. This periodic disturbance is what kept the ecosystem diverse and healthy while maintaining significant biodiversity for thousands of years.  Historically, natural fire has played an important role in many ecosystems by removing fuel accumulations, decreasing the impacts insects and diseases, simulating regeneration, cycling critical nutrients, and providing a diversity of habitats for plant species and wildlife. Return of fire in most ecosystems is essential for healthy vegetation in grasslands, wetlands, and riparian areas, for wildlife habitat. 

When fire is excluded on a broad scale, the unnatural accumulation of living and dead fuels that occurs can contribute to degraded plant communities and wildlife habitats. These fuel accumulations often change fire regime characteristics, and have created a potential in many areas across the country for uncharacteristically severe wildland fires. These catastrophic wildland fires often pose risks to public and firefighter safety. In addition, they threaten property and resource values such as wildlife habitat, grazing opportunities, timber, soils, and water quality.  


When integrated back into an ecosystem, fire can help restore and maintain healthy systems and reduce the risk of wildland fires. To facilitate fire’s natural role in the environment, fire must be integrated into land and resource management plans and activities on a broad scale.  

 Management Direction   

Fire Management Goal  

Restore and enhance fire as an ecosystem process within prairie habitats. The return and maintenance of fire is essential for wildlife habitat in these ecosystems.  

Fire management will be used to protect life, property and other resources from wildland fires by safely suppressing all wildfires on the Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge. Prescribed fire will be used in an ecosystem management context for habitat management and to protect both federal and private property. Fuel reduction activities will be applied where needed, especially in areas with a higher proportion of residences that may be considered “wildland–urban interface” (WUI) areas.  

All fire management programs will be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable laws, policies, and regulations. The refuge will maintain a Fire Management Plan to accomplish resource management objectives. Prescribed fire and manual and/or mechanical fuels treatments will be applied in a scientific way under selected weather and environmental conditions on approximately 500 to 2,000 acres, over a 5-year average, for native and restored prairie habitat, to accomplish habitat management objectives.