Our lands evolved with fire. Over millennia, fire swept the prairies, wetlands and forests at regular intervals, clearing brush, felling old and sickly trees, and opening the forest floor for new growth in a natural cycle of destruction and renewal. Plants and animals adapted to the cycle. Some grew to depend on it.
Native Americans used fire to herd animals during hunts and set small blazes to reduce the risk of larger ones. But with the growth of European settlement, the pattern changed. The newcomers suppressed fires to protect farms and villages.
There were only two problems with this approach: It didn’t serve native plants and animals. It wasn’t in humans’ interest, either. The longer fire is suppressed, the greater the buildup of natural “fuels” – flammable brush and trees. One good lightning strike under the right conditions, and you have an inferno.
It’s taken Americans decades to grasp that – counter to what we learn as kids from Bambi and Smokey Bear – fire, any fire, is not the enemy in nature. The trick, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management team knows, is keeping fire on our side.
“All fire isn’t bad, but it has to be managed,” says Robert Eaton, the Service’s deputy chief of fire management. “The use of fire, whether wildfire or prescribed fire, is very important for us to maintain our plant communities and provide habitat for animal species.”
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.” The Service has been using prescribed fire since the 1930s 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.
Some lands are particularly prone to wildfire. Drought, heat, disease and invasive species can heighten the risk.
When lightning hit Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on August 4, 2011, it struck a tinderbox. The swamp’s thick and flammable peat soil had been dried by drought. Dead brush from a 2008 fire provided more fuel. The 2011 Lateral West Wildfire burned for 111 days, producing a thick smoke visible from space. Fine particles and gases in the smoke created a human health hazard.
Last year, Great Dismal Swamp Refuge began a $3.13 million project, repairing and replacing water control structures, to better manage refuge water levels and reduce future fire risk. The refuge has also stepped up the clearing of downed trees and undergrowth to reduce fuels.
Out West, at places like Washington’s Hanford Reach National Monument, invasive fire-resistant cheatgrass has accelerated the wildfire cycle, imperiling slower-growing plants like native sagebrush.
“It used to be that the sage steppe would burn every 90 to 150 years,” says the Service’s national fire ecologist Lou Ballard. “Now we’re seeing these areas burn every five to 10 years. It’s changed the whole vegetative community. Cheatgrass dominates. Native plants have a hard time coming back.”
An average 400 wildfires burn on Service lands every year. Even as you read this, the West Mims Wildfire that began April 6 at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is still burning. Inter-agency fire crews are working to contain the fire within the swamp.
Wildfires endanger human communities, too.
In May 2014, the Funny River Wildfire in Alaska burned 200,000 acres of the Kenai Peninsula, threatening the communities of Kasilof, Funny River and Sterling, and forcing 900 people to evacuate.
Had staff at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge not helped build two fuel breaks at the refuge a year earlier, the situation could have been worse. “Without these two fuel treatments, it is highly likely homes would have been lost on the northern flank,” said Rob Allen, an incident commander on the fire. Watch more of the story here.
Better still, Service fire managers say, is planning a regular cycle of controlled burns that renew the land and deter wildfires while reducing risks to communities.
Controlled burns on refuges are planned months in advance. Before a burn, specialists draw up a fire plan, in consultation with natural resource experts, and submit it for review to the refuge manager.
The plan includes the purpose of the fire, such as thinning dead brush, removing plant pests or improving animal habitat. It also considers local terrain, wildlife and weather patterns. To ensure the fire stays within set boundaries, fire staff may use tools and machines to build a fire line before staging a burn.
Public and firefighter safety is always the top priority. Fire team members must pass a physical and a “pack test,” in which participants wearing 45-pound backpacks must walk three miles in 45 minutes or less. They must also wear special gear, including hard hats, leather gloves and flame-resistant clothing, and carry an emergency personal fire shelter. The Service has gone more than 35 years without a firefighter death. Earlier, three Service employees died in fires — one in 1979 at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and two in 1981 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Keeping people safe takes priority over protecting private property and natural resources.
This video describes preparation for a controlled burn.
For more than two decades, before the Service adopted stricter firefighter standards, refuge staffer Robin Will did double duty as a part-time fire team member.
One of her jobs: riding a helicopter, its back door removed, while operating a machine that would ignite and drop flammable “ping-pong balls” over a refuge burn site – allowing the refuge to burn 5,000 acres a day.
“This isn’t for everybody,” says Will, supervisory refuge ranger at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. “Some get sick to their stomach because the pilot is turning and banking ... literally gridding the burn area. Your head is hanging out to see where the balls drop. You’re turning the machine on, then quickly turning it off…because you don’t want fire inside helicopter.”
Today, a regular part of Will’s job at St. Marks Refuge is educating visitors about fire.
“We explain to people that if you don’t burn regularly to get rid of some of the fuels here in north Florida, lightning strikes are going to cause fires, and people’s homes will be at risk,” she says. “Twenty-five years ago people were struggling with that idea. Now, not so much. We had horrible wildfires in north Florida in the 90s.” Smoke from fires cut visibility along I-75 and led to crashes. “Anybody who was living here then understands,” says Will.
“We let people know safety is a priority,” she says. “We’re very careful about how we plan and execute prescribed fire. We all take that very seriously.”
Both on land and on water, fire crews monitor prescribed burns closely to make sure everything goes according to plan.
The Service cooperates with other public land agencies, with state and county governments, and with private landowners to manage fires. Some partnerships have become national models.
The Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners is a good example.
GOAL was formed in the wake of the 1990 Shorts Fire that burned 21.000 acres. “Okefenokee is notorious for having large wildfires,” often difficult to contain, says Russ Babiak, a Service fuels specialist. The fires threatened neighboring commercial timberlands.
GOAL got all stakeholders working together on fire management for the first time.
“GOAL is notable because it recognizes the wilderness character of the refuge, recognizes the fire dependency of ecosystem, while also recognizing the value of timber resources that surround the swamp,” says Curt McCasland, former project leader at Okefenokee Refuge.
Together, the consortium of private, county, state and federal partners works to reduce wildfire damage to commercial timberland surrounding the refuge while supporting the benefits of wildfire to the Okefenokee Swamp ecosystem.
Communities close to public lands depend on fire managers to protect them from fire and smoke tied to prescribed burns.
The photo above offers a dramatic look at how fire managers at Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge directed smoke from a prescribed burn away from roads and nearby homes. Refuge staff took prevailing winds into account when planning the burn.
At Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, managers planned the burn shown above to help restore disappearing sagebrush habitat, vital to species like the sage grouse.
Over time, more than half of the refuge’s sagebrush habitat has been damaged by plant pests, cattle grazing and too-frequent wildfires. This burn was planned to reduce dry brush and prepare the area for native plant seeding.
Some plants and animals can’t live without fire.
The Southeast’s native longleaf pine is one such species. Longleafs are hardy: beetle-resistant, storm-worthy and tolerant of wet or dry soils. But “without fire, longleaf pine has a hard time hanging on,” says fire ecologist Lou Ballard. “We have to have fire one to three years in rotation to maintain longleaf pine forests.”
Red-cockaded woodpeckers, bobwhite quail, songbirds and other animals depend on longleaf pine – and, in turn, on fire. Without fire, ground cover builds up, preventing longleaf pine seeds from reaching the soil and germinating.
Fire promotes the germination of more than 200 other plant species. Burn ash acts as fertilizer for many wildflowers, which are important to bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Other fire-adapted species include marsh rabbits, Florida panthers, Henslow’s sparrows, indigo snakes, carnivorous plants, Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoises, gopher frogs, flatwoods salamanders, sandhill cranes, Bachman’s sparrows and American chaffseed.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And, as this video shows, there are animals, too. Managing fire smartly helps ensure they remain.