Using prescribed fire to improve habitat and save wildlife

Prescribed fire at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Ruby Valley, Nevada. Photo by 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.”

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

Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, Colusa County, California

Refuge fire staff shoot flames from airboats onto thick tule clumps to burn the habitat. Given the relatively shallow marshes and warm temperatures, increasing emergent vegetation (cattail and hardstem bulrush, commonly referred to as “tules”) and invasive species such as primrose, begin to take over. Sooner or later the habitats need to be “set back” by burning, spraying, and improving soil granulation and surface uniformity by breaking up clods and surface crusts or ideally a combination of all these treatments. Done correctly, overburns reduce the tule overgrowth, which is not only beneficial to many types of wildlife but also allows the Service to more effectively rehabilitate the habitat. Burns are typically conducted during February and March to avoid nesting as much as possible, and while the surrounding habitats are green to reduce the risk of escape.

Kern National Wildlife Refuge, Kern County, California

Photo on left — A smoke column develops from a prescribed burn at Kern National Wildlife Refuge on April 27, 2021. Photo on right— Assistant refuge manager and collateral firefighter Sean Brophy of San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex completed a broadcast prescribed burn at Kern National Wildlife Refuge on April 27. Photos by Shawn Murphy/USFWS

This 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.

Photo on left— Collateral firefighter Trevor Browne conducts a prescribed burn of salt cedar piles. Photo on right— Piles of burning salt cedar. Photos by Sara Araiza/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.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Merced County, California

Photo on left— prescribed burn at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge on April 14, 2021. Photo on right — equipment operator and collateral firefighter Kyle Whiteaker lights a prescribed burn at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Photos by 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 firefighter Kyle 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.

Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Klamath County, Oregon

The ignition team lights the fire in a carefully executed grid pattern across the forest floor. Photo by Susan Sawyer/USFWS

Drip torches are the most common tool used to ignite prescribed fires. For more on Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge prescribed burns check out this story from 2019.

“All of these efforts are vitally important as we head into the western wildlife season,” said Hinckley.

For efforts in years past: Fighting fire with fire

Written by John Heil, External Affairs deputy assistant regional director, California-Great Basin Region

Contributors: The U.S. Forest Service: (PRESCRIBED FIRE (