Fire is a naturally occurring phenomenon throughout the longleaf and slash pine ecosystem and has shaped the appearance of the landscape over time.
When explorers first arrived in the Southeast, they recorded their observations of the landscape. Large acres of open savanna stretched from Louisiana to Florida, with widely scattered trees.
A mosaic of saw palmetto, carnivorous plants, herbaceous plants, and riparian drains of maples and oaks were the norm. The wet pine savanna was and still is one of the most diverse plant communities in North America. Only today, it's just a remnant - only 3-5% of the savanna remains.
Such diversity is dependent upon regular prescribed fire, keeping the area open for sun-loving herbaceous plants, as well as giving native longleaf pines and other native plants the conditions they need to thrive.
Historically, natural fire occurred on a three to five-year interval. Fires were of low intensity, fueled by grasses and pine litter. Prescribed fire simulates natural fire. Fire management officers write a prescription for fire to be ignited only when certain weather, fuel and moisture conditions occur that will make the fire manageable.
The prescribed fire program at the refuge strives to return the wet pine savannas to a natural condition, providing suitable habitat for native plant communities such as wiregrass and pitcher plants.
The native plants of the southeast are well adapted to fire. Many species are not just fire-tolerant, but even fire-dependent.
One example is the of a fire-dependent plant is the longleaf pine. Mature pines are fire-tolerant with multiple layers of bark to protect the core of the tree during a fire. Longleaf needles effectively protect their growing points during fires, allowing them to continue thriving after the burn. In addition, the seeds of the longleaf are shed only after the cones have been warmed by fire. Seedlings stay in a low-growing “grass stage” that survives as fires sweep over them, then seem to have a growth spurt often referred to as a "jump" after a burn.
Wire grass is another example of a fire-dependent savanna species. Only after being burned during the growing season will this grass produce seeds. Their complex system of underground roots and shoots helps them survive the fire.
These open wet pine savannas are important for the critically endangered Mississippi sandhill crane as well as many other declining populations of grassland bird species that use the savanna.
To simulate the natural conditions that the wet pine savanna is adapted to, prescribed fire at the refuge is mainly applied in the fall and spring. Fall fire is used to improve savannas overstocked with planted slash pine and to enhance crane nesting areas. Spring (growing season) fire is used to clear unwanted woody vegetation from savannas that have grown up into brush thickets.
This brush shades out native, desirable herbaceous plants and makes the savanna unsuitable for crane nesting. Spring fire improves the growth response of herbaceous plants while reducing the viability of the woody plants.
Prescribed burning is a complex science known as "Fire Ecology". Trained firefighters look at weather conditions, ground moisture, habitat conditions and more to determine when and how to burn an area.
Important mechanical work installs "firelines" which act as the borders of the burn unit. Some firelines can be roads or bayous. They are often disced mineral lines which have a lack of fuel that will stop the fire from creeping across the line. During a burn, firefighters closely monitor these lines to ensure that they stop the fire effectively.
Fire is often applied using handheld drip torches. Firefighters complete lines of fire which burn and create a black area around the boundary of the fire - increasing the size of the fireline.
Once substantial black has been burned in the unit, it's time to burn the inner acres.The inner acres of the burn are often done by aerial ignition. Aerial ignition spheres that look like 'ping-pong balls" are dropped from a helicopter in a special machine that starts a chemical reaction within the spheres. The spheres ignite spot fires that burn together within the target area.
In this way, large acreages can be burned safely and efficiently. Smoke is less of a problem with these fires. Since smoke blows from burn areas with the prevailing winds, burns are planned when a favorable wind is forecast which will carry the smoke away from developed areas and main highways.
Wildlife such as deer, small mammals and reptiles escape the prescribed fire by running ahead of the fire or seeking cover in dens or holes in the ground. Very few animals perish in prescribed fires because the spot fires burn with less intensity than wildfire that is driven by the wind.
Burned areas are almost immediately used by wildlife who seek invertebrates, roots and other delectables in the newly uncovered ground.
Depending on weather conditions, units can "green up" with new growth within days or weeks of a burn.
In general, the refuge's prescribed burning season, during the spring, coincides with crane nesting season. A several year study has been looking at buffers around the crane nests and the proximity of fire and fire equipment to active nests. Current data seems to show that cranes are relatively comfortable with fire with some buffer between the nest and the flames, particularly if that buffer includes trees and shrubs.
They seem less comfortable with heavy equipment nearby, so firefighters are careful to keep engines and other equipment far from the nest buffers to reduce interrupting the crane's incubation.
The fire management program at the Refuge is responsible for both the applications of prescribed fire and the suppression of undesired wildfire at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, the nearby Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.
The refuge fire crew also assists the local Mississippi Forestry Commission in suppressing wildfire in Jackson County.
While prescribed burning is useful to improve and maintain wildlife habitat and reduce the risk of dangerous fires, wildfires can threaten life and property.
Wildfire is any undesirable fire burning on or adjacent to the refuge. This fire endangers refuge values such as nesting sites or improvements such as buildings. Whether caused by humans or lightning, wildfire will be suppressed by the refuge fire crew.
With recent and rapid commercial development within the county, a wildland/urban interface now exists that heightens the importance of wildfire supression. Homes and businesses have been constructed within forest and brush lands that are susceptible to recurring wildfire.
When fires of national complexity occur, the refuge fire management crews are ready and available to assist whenever and wherever needed. Refuge firefighters travel all over the nation to help with fire operations.
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In the wild Mississippi sandhill cranes can only be found on and adjacent to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR. There are only about 100 individuals remaining.