USA — Typically, when a fire breaks out on a national wildlife refuge, U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service employees scramble to contain the blaze.
When a fire began at Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, Fish andWildlife employees did nothing to douse the flames. Instead, they poured amixture of diesel fuel and gasoline on the fire at times to hasten its spread.
The Fish and Wildlife Service along with the AlabamaForestry Commission employees and Oakland Volunteer Fire Department torched 65acres of grasslands at the wildlife refuge west of Florence.
Steve Seibert, assistant manager of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur,said the fire was part of the management plan for the Florencerefuge. Key Cave Refuge is a satellite of the Decatur refuge.
“We use fire to keep the woody vegetation out of the grassland. Also, itstimulates the growth of the native grasses there,” Seibert said.
Fish and Wildlife Service employees started Tuesday’s fire at noon. A thin veilof white smoke rose from the fire as it began to burn away dried grass. As gustsof winds swept across the 1,060-acre refuge, the fire began to grow. By 12:30p.m., a cloud of dark gray smoke, visible from miles away, darkened the skyabove the fire.
Onlookers attracted by the smoke drove slowly along Dabney Lane to watch thecracking fire.
Fish and Wildlife Service employees used rubber flaps and rakes to keep withinthe area targeted for burning. Oakland firefighters and forestry commissionemployees stood by with fire trucks and tools ready to lend a hand in case thefire tried to escape.
Seibert said the ground blackened by Wednesday’s fire will soon be covered withlush, green grass, providing food for deer, rabbit and other browsing animals.Burning away the mats of dried grass also improves the habitat for grasslandbirds that live at the refuge that was created in 1997. The grass is burnedevery two to three years.
Paul Kittle, chairman of the biology department at the Universityof North Alabama,said the refuge is the best place in Alabamato see some grassland birds, such as grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels.
Kittle said rarely is wildlife killed by the managed fires. He said rabbits,birds and other animals either move away from the fire or seek shelterunderground.
Kittle plans to take students from an ecology class he teaches to the refuge sothey can see how fire can be used as a tool for managing wildlife.
Seibert said using fire to improve wildlife habitat is nothing new. AmericanIndians used fire to burn away trees in forested areas and create grassy areasthat attracted elk, bison and deer which they hunted for food and hides.