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
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
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
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.
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Interagency fuel treatments help reduce West Mims fire size and cost
Every year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Florida Forest Service collaborate to conduct prescribed fires around the Okefenokee Wilderness to help reduce wildfire growth potential. Each agency shares resources to implement these treatments regardless of jurisdiction, to help reduce the risk of large fire growth outside of the Okefenokee Wilderness. Learn more about how these treatments help protect the communities around Okefenokee Swamp.
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.
- Learn more about the duties of employees working in prescribed fire.
- Discover how to get a job in prescribed fire with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Guides, training and resources
Fire management guides by species
Includes desired vegetation structure and fire components, desired habitat conditions, mobility, area sensitivity, and insularity-connectivity consideration.
- Bachman’s sparrow
- Brownheaded nuthatch
- Henslow’s sparrow
- Little bluestem
- Painted bunting
- Pine snake
Training and education
- Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee, Florida
- Firescience.gov, science provided by the Joint Fire Science Program
- Goodfires.org, provided by the Southern Group of State Foresters
- Wildland Fire in the South, provided by the Southern Regional Strategy Committee
Southeast region annual narratives
Annual narratives detailing the Southeast Region’s Fire Management fiscal year events broken down by each of the Fire Management Zones.
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