Fire Management on National Key Deer Refuge


Fire plays a significant role in shaping the Southeast’s wildlife habitats. Historically, frequent fires were a natural part of the southeastern landscape. Many species of plants and animals are fire dependent, requiring fire to live and thrive while many others are fire-adapted, able to live in a frequently burned ecosystem.

  • Fire Management, An Introduction


    Fire Management at National Key Deer Refuge combines fire suppression, prescribed fire, thinning of overgrown vegetation, and fire ecology to protect local communities and support the Refuge's mission to protect and preserve Key deer and other wildlife resources in the lower Florida Keys. The plans and actions of this program are guided by the Fire Management Plan (FMP) and the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP).

    Fire has been increasingly suppressed in the ecosystems it shaped. When a fire-dependent habitat doesn’t burn, the flammable plant material builds up. Over time, this build up can cause dangerous wildfires that overwhelm our ability to put them out.

    Today we call these fire-prone developed areas the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). In the WUI, wildfires are suppressed to protect homes, lives, and property. The ability to extinguish wildfires depends on the fire’s size, firefighter availability, fuel levels, weather conditions, and firefighter and public safety.

    Like wildlife, wildfire has always been a part of natural areas. Fire ecology is the study of how fire affects and is affected by ecosystem processes. Every ecosystem experiences differences in fire frequency, intensity, size, and seasonality and these different fire behavior patterns are described as fire regimes. Fire regimes vary over time and space and can be altered by human actions such as housing construction and fire suppression.

    For more information on the annual prescribed fire plans, check out the Prescribed Fire Program section.

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  • Prescribed Fire Program


    A prescribed fire is a fire that is planned to meet land management goals, such as restoring nesting habitat or controlling invasive weeds. It may also be called a “controlled burn” or “prescribed burn.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been using prescribed fire since the 1930's to improve the health of plant and animal communities, return nutrients to the soil, and reduce the risk of damaging wildfire. The Service burns roughly 300,000 acres a year.

    For more info on the FWS NKDR Prescribed Fire Program, click the link below. For an update pertaining to the 2019-2020 Prescribed Fire Season, including a map of proposed burn units, please click link below.

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  • Mechanical Vegetation Thinning


    Periodic fire is critical in maintaining plant diversity in the Pine Rockland ecosystems of South Florida.  However, the remaining Pine Rocklands on Big Pine Key are adjacent to suburban developments, raising public concern about the threat to structures, human health and personal safety with respect to prescribed fire and smoke inhalation.  An additional tool available to restore and maintain Pine Rocklands at National Key Deer Refuge is the use of mechanical vegetation thinning techniques.  Although this tool does not offer all of the ecological benefits of fire, it can benefit the ecosystem and surrounding community in a number of ways:

    1. Protecting Homes: Mechanical vegetation thinning has been used at National Key Deer Refuge for decades as a method of reducing fuel loads, or overgrown vegetation, that would otherwise increase the risk to private landowners adjacent to wildland areas like the Refuge.  
    2. Opening the Canopy: Reducing select trees, shrubs and palm trees to mulch allows for the quick breakdown of plant material while opening up the canopy for smaller, early successional flowering plants and grasses to grow.  Without sunlight, these rare endemic species are unable to survive.  In fact, partridge pea species (a cousin to our federally-endangered Big Pine partridge pea) have significantly increased in cover from mechanical vegetation thinning in the Pine Rocklands of Miami-Dade County.  Habitat restoration work on Big Pine Key is currently being conducted that will provide additional information on plant response to this useful technique. 
    3. Making for a Safer Prescribed Fire: By removing excess fuels, USFWS Fire Program staff are able to maintain better control over the fire.  This tool is used across the country to prepare prescribed fire units by removing dry or oily vegetation near structures, maintaining fire breaks, and clearing vegetation around power lines and other important infrastructure.

    For more information on the impacts of this mechanical vegetation thinning on the pine rockland community, check out these links:

    Maschinski, J. & Possley, J., Fellows, M, Lane, C., Muir, A., Wendelberger, K., Wright, S., and Thornton, H. 2005. Using thinning as a fire surrogate to improve native plant diversity in a South Florida pine rockland habitat. Ecological Restoration. 23.  

    Henry, E. 2017.  Two surrogates for wildfire, prescribed burning and mechanical clearing, differentially affect demography of a rare, endemic plant (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA. 

    Henry, E., N. Haddad, M. Reiskind. 2018.  Using disturbance to restore Bartram’s hairstreak habitat on Big Pine Key Final Report Submitted to Florida Keys Wildlife Refuges, May 2018.  Grant Agreement #F14AP00922.

    Watts, K. 2018.  Response by Two Endangered Pine Rockland Plants to Mechanical Vegetation Thinning Treatment in the Lower Florida Keys.  Unpublished report.



  • Wildfire Suppression


    National Key Deer Refuge depends upon state and local firefighting partners to respond to wildfire reports.  USFWS Fire personnel will respond to assist partners as quickly as possible, bringing additional specialized wildland fire equipment such as UTVs, Type 6 engines, skidsteers, and water tanks with heavy duty hoses.


    In an effort to prevent catastrophic wildfires, USFWS maintains fire breaks in many areas of National Key Deer Refuge.  These fire breaks allow for the control of wildfires by allowing for ease of access by fire equipment, and by providing  cleared areas to contain a fire.  USFWS also conducts prescribed fires and reduces fuel loads through mechanical  clearing to reduce overgrown vegetation, minimizing the risk of potential wildfire activities.


    To learn more about the USFWS' role in fighting and preventing wildfires in Florida, check out this video discussing the Last Dance wildfire at Loxahatchee NWR in 2015.

  • Fire and Your Home


    Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is roughly defined as the zone where natural areas and development meet. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service works closing with neighboring communities to reduce future wildfire risks to homes near national wildlife refuges and other FWS lands. Homeowner responsibility for maintaining property according to fire safety standards is essential to effectively protecting communities from catastrophic wildfire.

    For more information on the Wildland Urban Interface, visit: FWS Wildlife Urban Interface


    Ready, Set, Go! Program seeks to share information with residents on what they can do to successfully prepare for a wildland fire. (Brought to you by the International Association of Fire Chiefs)


    The Firewise USA Program encourages local solutions for safety by involving homeowners in taking individual responsibility for preparing their homes from the risk of wildfire.

    (Brought to you by the National Fire Protection Association)