National Wildlife Refuge System
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A firefighter carries a driptorch to light grass on fire during a prescribed fire on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.
A firefighter carries a driptorch to light grass on fire during a prescribed fire on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.
Credit: USFWS

Counting on Fire

Prescribed burns planned this year on several Western National Wildlife Refuges, including Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in California, may reduce public danger from wildfires in the drought-plagued region. Same for refuge burns in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, where below–average rainfall has raised the risk of catastrophic wildfires, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire experts.

Every year between 250 and 300 refuges nationwide conduct prescribed burns (managed fires) mimicking nature's renewal process. The fires have two primary goals: 1) reducing accumulations of dry grass, shrubs and trees that can fuel uncontrollable wildfires and 2) maintaining and improving wildlife habitat. Many species that refuges protect depend on vegetation that follows fire.

"Prescribed fire is the most cost–effective and widely used tool to manage the environment," said Fred Wetzel, Fish and Wildlife Service National Fire Program Advisor. Refuges often plan prescribed burns three to five years in advance. The most extensive burning occurs in the Southeast, where refuge acreage exceeds that of any other region outside Alaska; much of refuge land in the South is on a five- to seven-year fire rotation.

The 2010 wildfire season got off to a slow start, with federal and state agencies reporting 8,500 fires on 141,000 acres at the end of March, down from the seven-year average of 13,000 fires on 418,000 acres at this season. But Refuge System fire experts expect that picture to change.

"If we don't get spring rains, the wildfire season in much of the West will start in June, and it can go through November," said Erik Christiansen, Fish and Wildlife Service Fuels Program Manager based in the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. Under federal policy, lightning–caused wildfires can be managed for multiple objectives, depending on conditions, including both protecting communities and allowing fire to benefit natural resources.

Wetzel and Christiansen say millions of Americans learned the wrong lesson from Smokey Bear that all fire is detrimental and dangerous for wildlife. "That's not necessarily true," said Christiansen. "What's true is we don't want people lighting fires indiscriminately. What we want Smokey to say is, ‘Let the professionals do it safely and effectively.'"

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For NIFC resources:

For National Weather Service updates on the national fire situation, visit

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