Wildlife Refuges
Conserving the Nature of America in the Southwest Region
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Fire Management Programs

Chenier aerial ignition, TX. Credit: USFWS
Whooping cranes on fresh burn. Credit: USFWS
Whooping cranes on fresh burn. Credit: USFWS

Planning & Operations

The FWS fire management planning processes are accomplished by assessing the purpose for which a refuge was established, applicable laws and ordinances, policies and regulations, local conditions, ecological, wildlife and social concerns, which in turn identifies the appropriate management options (i.e. how, when, and where fire will be used and/or excluded). A Refuge fire management plan formulates the appropriate management options into an operational plan, which could include a range of fire suppression methods, prescribed burning, and/or wildland fire response options used to manage future desired conditions. Fire management plans and prescribed fire plans are operational plans developed to implement a range of land-use-management decisions documented in approved Refuge Comprehensive Conservation and Habitat Management Plans.

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Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness

The preparedness component of wildland fire management involves the process of planning and implementing activities prior to a wildland fire incident. This process includes actions which are completed on a routine basis prior to each fire season as well as incremental actions conducted in response to increasing fire danger. These actions may include for example strategic placement of fuel breaks, fire response planning and maps, camp fire and public-use area closures, strategic placement of suppression resources, public education and outreach, and utilization of additional or special suppression resources during times of high to extreme fire indices.

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Prescribed Fire and Hazardous Fuels

Prescribed fire is any planned fire ignited to meet specific management objectives. An approved prescribed fire plan must exist, and NEPA requirements (where applicable) must be met, prior to ignition. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has assumed a leadership role in the use of prescribed fire to maintain and support healthy fire-adapted ecosystems. Use of prescribed fire is widely accepted as a primary tool for habitat management by resource managers. Carefully planned prescribed fire gives Refuge managers the flexibility to burn under the right conditions, to more effectively manage fire effects and smoke, to benefit natural resource objectives, while keeping firefighters and the public safe. These proactive measures help reduce the risk of more devastating fires that can threaten people, fish, wildlife and plants. Other means of reducing hazardous fuels including mechanical removal of brush and timber, chemical treatment of invasive weeds may be used in combination with prescribed fire or as a substitute where conditions would make the use of fire unsafe or impractical. Where possible, the use of prescribed fire is preferred because it is generally cheaper and yields different ecological benefits that cannot be achieved by other means. The Southwest Region uses prescribed fire to enhance numerous habitats for important wildlife species including whooping cranes, mottled ducks, peregrine falcons, elk, bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, turkey, masked bobwhite quail, black-capped vireos, Yuma clapper rails, and California black rails to name a few.

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Fire Behavior and Weather

Prescribed fire plans describe in detail the acceptable ranges of fire behavior, parameters of weather and fuel moisture content, other fire variables that are used to define acceptable smoke duration and patterns of dispersal, seasons when the burns can be done, and other specific factors that indicate enhanced success for achievement of objectives. The use of fire behavior and smoke management prediction aids are standard (e.g., BEHAVE, RXWINDOW, nomograms, SASEM). Keeping abreast of changing fire behavior and weather is also critical for safe response and management of wildfires.

Predictive Services was developed to provide decision support information needed to be more proactive in anticipating significant fire activity and determining resource allocation needs. Predictive Services has three primary functions; fire weather, fire danger/fuels, and intelligence/resource status information.

Predictive Services intelligence provides fire management personnel, incident managers, firefighters and support staff with access to current intelligence on preparedness levels, fire situations, resources, mapping, satellite imagery, climatology, resource availability, rotation schedules, and fire potential information. Meteorologists analyze a variety of weather products and services to provide briefings and outlooks for current and forecasted conditions and in some cases provide spot weather and smoke forecasts. A number of innovative products and tools have been created to help fire managers assess fire potential during high-risk periods and localities. See the Southwest and Southern Coordination Center web links under Fire Planning and Operations, for access to local predictive services products.

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Fire Ecology, Adaptive Management, Inventory and Monitoring

Fire ecology is the study of the ecological and historical role of fire and fire effects on the environment, ecosystems, plants, and animals. Fire is a fundamental process in many ecosystems throughout the world, influencing community structure, function, and composition. Many species of plants have evolved adaptations to episodic fire, and many depend on fire for their function, reproduction or fitness. The suppression of natural fire regimes has resulted in considerable changes to fire-adapted ecosystems. In many places ecosystems are now threatened, by anomalous high-severity fire events, due to fire suppression and the resulting unsustainable buildup of hazardous fuels. The alteration of natural fire regimes has been acknowledged by the scientific community as a global threat to biological diversity. A better understanding of fire ecology can guide management decisions that help facilitate the restoration and conservation of fire-adapted ecosystems, wildlife habitats and species.

Our goal has been to use monitoring in the Adaptive Management process to improve management practices, technologies and efficiencies; to implement a useful and consistent fire monitoring program; and to use the best scientific methods and technologies to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of management treatments to accomplish stated objectives. Fire monitoring plans should describe quantifiable objectives, methods, and frequency needed to determine if conditions for the burn are within prescription, before it is started and while it is burning. The use of Hazardous Fuels or Wildland Urban Interface funds are limited to monitoring the first (e.g., initial) and second order (e.g., longer-term) effects of fuel-management projects (e.g., prescribed fires, mechanical or chemical fuel treatments, etc.) on vegetation or fuel, wildlife habitat composition and structure, and as recognized objectives in approved Refuge Fire Management Plans and/or an approved Habitat Management Plans. Monitoring is also limited to before and after treatments and at 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 year after treatment intervals.

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Burned Area Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation

Emergency stabilization (ES) and burned area rehabilitation (BAR) are part of a holistic approach to address post-wildfire issues, which includes suppression activity damage repair and long-term (>3 years) restoration. The incident management team begins the process by repairing suppression activity damage. ES are planned actions developed by burned area emergency response (BAER) teams and implemented within one year of wildfire containment, to stabilize and prevent unacceptable degradation to natural and cultural resources, to minimize threats to life or property, or to repair, replace, or construct physical improvements necessary to prevent further degradation of resources. BAR consists of efforts undertaken within three years of wildfire containment to repair or improve fire-damaged lands unlikely to recover naturally to management approved conditions, or to repair or replace facilities damaged by fire. The process concludes with long-term restoration that takes these projects to fruition via Refuge resources. The Department of the Interior ES and BAR website consolidates guidance surrounding BAER incident management, planning and policy information.

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Last updated: February 1, 2021