Fire Management

A key purpose for which Tetlin Refuge was established and is currently managed is "to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity." For millenia, fire has played an important role in maintaining a natural diversity of habitats in boreal ecosystems. Today, fire is the most important tool available on the Refuge for maintaining the natural diversity of wildlife habitats.

There are three factors that play a major role in how and why any fire management decision is made. First, the safety and well-being of the public, adjacent landowners and Refuge employees are of the utmost importance. Second, the action must be compatible with the purposes for which the Refuge was created. Third, the course of action being taken must be an effective use of funds. (Is the cost worth the result)?

Learn more about current fires across Alaska from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Research and field data collection are important sources of information used to make effective fire management decisions. Before we can understand what the effects of a fire will be, we need good data on pre-fire conditions, weather trends and expected fire behavior.

The Kennebec Fire, which burned 31,430 acres of the Refuge in the Black Hills in 1982, serves as an outdoor laboratory for determining fire effects specific to the upper Tanana Valley. Several studies have utilized this area since the burn. One study helped determine the habitat characteristics preferred by lynx. In cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, a project to determine the extent of consumption of partially decomposed vegetative material and smoke production was completed. Research continues on the response to fire by vegetation, small mammal and furbearers, passerines (songbirds,) and moose.

Pre-fire and post-fire vegetation plots are established on most planned prescribed burns to document the changes in vegetation that result from fire. Duff moisture, fuel moisture and soil moisture data are collected to determine the effects of precipitation trends on fire occurrence and fire behavior. Weather data is collected and archived from two remote automatic weather stations located on the Refuge.

All of these projects and activities help Refuge staff to make educated decisions regarding fire management. Our objective is to protect the public from destructive fire while utilizing fire to secure the diversity and health of our habitat and wildlife resources.

Wildland Urban Interface

The Tetlin Refuge works with local village fire crews to construct firebreaks around homes and other structures in the area. Numerous locations have been identified as places at high risk for damage from wildfire in Alaska. Funding is provided by the National Fire Plan Wildland Urban Interface Project.

Crews thin pockets of highly flammable black spruce and reduce ladder fuels around these areas starting in May. Slash is piled and burned as wet weather occurs later in the summer and fall.

These highly successful projects increase the fire safety around homes and villages as well as provide summer employment opportunities for residents. The protection at these sites enables managers to allow some wildfires to burn, improving wildlife habitat for many species.

Fires and Prescribed Burns

Interagency fire management plans have been developed which allow for a range of suppression responses to wildland fires that occur on fire prone lands in Alaska. Planned responses are established for broad areas based on land management objectives established by the land manager, and resource values that may be at risk or threatened should a fire start in that area. On Tetlin Refuge, wildland fires which occur near populated or developed areas are aggressively suppressed, while wildland fires which occur in remote areas where wildlife habitat can be enhanced by fire, receive a monitoring response. As long as the remote fires do not threaten to spread into developed areas or create a smoke problem, they will continue to be monitored with no other suppression action taken.

The Refuge also has an active prescribed fire program. When needed, detailed prescribed burn plans are written for specific areas with specific objectives. Objectives for prescribed burns on the Refuge are normally linked to improving wildlife habitat, enhancing habitat diversity, or hazard reduction. "Prescriptions" are developed which specify the range of environmental conditions under which each burn will be accomplished. If these and other conditions are met, the prescribed burn is ignited by a trained team of specialists.

The complex mosaic created by the long term interaction with fire provides habitats to support the greatest diversity of plants and animals on the Refuge. The probability of large catastrophic fires occurring is reduced because the vegetation mosaic created by smaller fires over a long period of time tends to limit fire spread. Funds are conserved by not spending large amounts of money to aggressively suppress fires in remote areas. Suppression resources can concentrate on protecting developed or inhabited areas and quickly put out destructive fires that occur in these areas.