Keeping Fire on Our Side

For thousands of years, fire has influenced the southeastern landscape. Today, a broad range of plants, animals and their habitats have developed a harmonious relationship with fire.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses fire as land management tool. We recognize that when respected and managed with care, fire can be a beneficial ally rather than an awesome opponent. Thoughtful preparation and action by public managers and private property owners can help keep fire’s effects positive and together, we can keep fire on our side.

Benefits of Fire in Southeastern Ecosystems

Fire climbs up a small longleaf pine seedling

A fire tickles longleaf pine needles. Photo by John Maxwell for USFWS.

Across the Southeast there are many examples of nature’s adaptations to fire. In fact, the continued survival of many plant and animal species is dependent upon fire!

  • Frequent fire is necessary to maintain the open nature of the iconic longleaf pine-wiregrass habitat. Longleaf seeds that germinate in the bare, mineral-rich soil left behind after a burn.
  • The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker prefers to use mature longleaf pine trees to bore out its nesting cavities.
  • Animals like the endangered Key deer of Florida enjoy feeding on the fresh tufts of vegetation that emerge after a landscape is burned.
  • Wiregrass is one of several plant species that require fire for flowering.
  • Southeastern pine trees, such as pond and sand pine, require heat from a fire for seed release.
  • Other plants have adapted to survive frequent fire by resprouting from their underground parts. Such plants include marsh plants, lilies, some orchids, many shrubs and some herbs.
  • Another group of plants go one step further and have chemicals in their leaves that are flammable and actually encourage fire to spread. These plants quickly resprout after a fire and can get a big head start on their neighbors. Such plants include bays, myrtles and palmettos, which are found along our coastal plain.

These fire-adapted ecosystems and the threatened and endangered species that call them home are the reason we use fire as a land management tool.

What Is “Prescribed Fire?”

“Prescribed fire” or “prescribed burning” describes a carefully planned activities designed to ignite a fire in a specific location.

Communities and landowners near national wildlife refuges benefit from the Service’s regular use of prescribed burning. Through regular burning, large volumes of vegetation, or “fuel,” are prevented from building up to dangerous levels. Prescribed burns can be done under controlled conditions to limit smoke’s impact on human health.

Recognizing that neither ecosystems nor wildfires stop at refuge boundaries, Service staff also work beyond refuges to help communities manage fire. Refuge firefighters may respond to off-site wildfires to protect people and property and often work collaboratively with other federal agencies, states, and landowners to conduct prescribed burns off refuges. Ready Reserve Program provides funding to local fire departments which may assist with fighting wildfires on or near refuge lands.

Planning and Safety

Smoke billows in a grassy field

Prescribed fire also involves smoke management, as depicted here at St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jennifer Hinckley, USFWS.

Safety is always the highest priority, and specialists take into account a variety of conditions, including weather, wind speed, nearby roads and communities, time of the year, and more when determining the right time and place for a prescribed burn.

Long before a match is struck, staff will complete a unit-specific Prescribed Fire Plan describing the area to be managed. Firebreaks, such as gaps in vegetation or other natural barriers, are prepared to prevent a runaway blaze.

Managers use computer software to predict what smoke emissions will be produced and where the smoke will go. Steps to mitigate smoke’s impact are lined out as part of the Prescribed Fire Plan. Managers carefully choose days when weather conditions will help control the smoke and flames while still allowing an effective burn. Wind speed and direction, vegetation and soil moisture, air temperature, and humidity must all be “within prescription.”

On the day of the burn, equipment and trained personnel are assembled at the site. After confirming that weather conditions meet the requirements, the “Burn Boss,” a specially qualified fire manager, gives the okay and oversees the burn. Fire and smoke conditions are carefully monitored. Flames near the perimeter are extinguished before staff leave the site, and the unit is frequently monitored until the next significant rainfall.

Checklist for a Safe, Efficient Prescribed Burn

  • Complete Prescribed Fire Plan
  • Prepare fire breaks
  • Assemble equipment and trained crew
  • Check conditions: air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, moisture of vegetation and soil
  • Notify local emergency personnel and neighbors
  • Set test fire to confirm conditions
  • Conduct burn with constant supervision
  • Secure perimeter
  • Monitor until fire is completely out

Tips for Living with Fire

A firefighter's silhouette with a fire background

A wildfire blazes at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Josh O’Connor, USFWS.

The relationship of fire and people in the Southeast has a long history. As populations continue to expand into wildland areas, this relationship cannot be lost. Along with the pleasure of living among the wildlands comes the responsibility of preparing home and property for a wildfire. From construction to maintenance, there are things you can do to make your home more fire-resistant and increase the odds that it will still be standing once a fire has passed.

Select a safe site

Clear an area 30 feet wide around your home. Remove dry grass, brush, dead leaves, and pine needles. Replace highly flammable plants with fire-resistant, high–moisture ones. Re-locate woodpiles away from structures. Keep trees pruned.

Create a survivable space

If you have wood shakes, treat or replace them with non-combustible materials. Replace plate glass with tempered.

Make your roof, walls and windows fire resistant

Flying sparks can enter through any opening. Keep gutters free of leaves, pine needles, and debris.

Install screens on chimneys, vents and gutters

Wooden decks, fences, and trellises can act as ignition points and lead fire to your house. Clean leaves and debris from patios and decks. Consider building ground-level terraces. Don’t attach wooden fences to your house.

Check all additional structures

Make sure your driveway is well marked and wide enough for fire equipment to enter.

Fire News

Check out a complete list of content tagged with prescribed fire

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Jobs in Fire

We employ a team of experts across 10 southeastern states and Puerto Rico that provide fire management oversight for southeastern national wildlife refuges. These men and women also provide support to conservation partners in the southeast, and respond to national emergencies such as wildfires in the west.

Guides, Training and Resources

Firefighters gather for a picture in front of a fire

USFWS firefighters working with firefighters from the Prescribed Fire Training Center to conduct a burn at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Vic Doig, USFWS.

Fire Management Guides by Species

Includes desired vegetation structure and fire components, desired habitat conditions, mobility, area sensitivity, and insularity-connectivity consideration.

Training and Education

Contact Us

Want to know more about fire management in the southeast? Contact a member of our staff.

Vince Carver, Chief, Division of Fire Management
(404) 679-7225, Vince_Carver@fws.gov

Jon Wallace, Deputy Chief, Division of Fire Management
(404) 679-7244, Jon_Wallace@fws.gov

Josh O’Connor, Fire Management Specialist (Fuels)
(404) 679-4192, Josh_OConnor@fws.gov

Rick Struhar, Fire Management Specialist (Operations)
(404) 353-2004, Rick_Struhar@fws.gov

Sue Wilder, Southeast Regional Fire Ecologist
(958) 882-2008, Sue_Wilder@fws.gov

Mike Duiett, Director, Prescribed Fire Training Center
(850) 523-8633, Michael_Dueitt@fws.gov