Using prescribed fire to improve habitat and save wildlife

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Prescribed burn at Modoc National Wildlife Refuge: USFWS firefighters worked with our partner firefighters from Modoc National Forest and CAL FIRE to successfully implement a 300-acre prescribed fire on the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge on January 27, 2022. The prescribed fire objective was to reduce the fuel load in the marsh; therefore, reducing the threat during wildfire season. A secondary objective is to reduce the thatch in the marsh from previous year marsh grass growth. Migratory birds will be able to find food and water easier with less thatch. Credit: USFWS

Much like a doctor uses medication to treat an ailment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often prescribes fire to increase the overall health of the land and to protect communities from catastrophic wildfire.

For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prescribed fire is the planned application of low to moderate intensity burns onto the landscape by fire and fuel specialists to meet land management objectives.

“Prescribed fire is a tool that national wildlife refuges use throughout the country and, in particular, California and Nevada, to reduce fuel loads and refresh habitats by cleaning up older or dead vegetation/buildup,” said Jennifer Hinckley, regional fire management coordinator for the Service. “This tool can lower the intensity or even prevent wildfires on the land by reducing the fuel [vegetation] available for consumption by wildfires. Lower intensity fires are safer and easier for firefighters to control.

“All of these efforts are vitally important each year as we head into the western wildlife season.” 

Some recent prescribed burns on refuges in the Service’s Pacific Southwest Region (California, Nevada, and Klamath Basin, Oregon) include:

Prescribed fire on Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - this image shows thick dark smoke from burning tule clump. This prescribed burn prescribed burn
A prescribed burn is the controlled use of fire to restore wildlife habitat, reduce wildfire risk, or achieve other habitat management goals. We have been using prescribed burn techniques to improve species habitat since the 1930s.

Learn more about prescribed burn
was conducted by fire and collateral fire staff from San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The approximately 200 wetland acre area targeted was dominated by dense cattails and tules. The purpose of the prescribed burn was to reduce hazardous fuel loading and enhance wildlife habitat, particularly by opening up the stand for use by certain waterbirds and enhancing nesting habitat for the colonial nesting tricolored blackbird. Credit: USFWS
A prescribed burn of salt cedar piles at Kern National Wildlife Refuge was completed on April 28, 2021 with the assistance of Trevor Browne, a collateral firefighter and tractor operator. The burn consisted of over 70 piles of salt cedar (invasive woody plant) cut and collected from an additional 200-acre upland habitat. The purpose of the prescribed burn was to reduce hazardous fuels and control invasive woody plant species, which impact the native flora. Credit: Sara Araiza/USFWS
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex fire staff annually conduct prescribed burn projects to reduce heavy fuel loading to minimize wildfire risk and enhance wildlife habitat. Equipment operator and collateral firefighterKyle Whiteaker uses a drip torch above, which contains a flaming mixture of gas and diesel fuel, to assist with a prescribed burn on April 14, 2021.Credit: Sara Araiza/USFWS
Prescribed burn at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge on April 14, 2021. Credit: USFWS
The ignition team lights the fire in a carefully executed grid pattern across the forest floor at the Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Drip torches are the most common tool used to ignite prescribed fires. Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

For efforts in years past, check out our Flickr album of prescribed burn photos.

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Fire management
Prescribed burning