Chasing Fire: Protecting Refuges and Beyond

Chasing Fire: Protecting Refuges and Beyond

03 November 2015

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USA–  A record wildfire season hit public lands in the United States in 2015. There were more than 50,000 fires on more than 9 million public acres, far exceeding the 10-year average for acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

At season’s peak, from Aug. 10 to Sept. 10, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deployed more than 220 staff members to support other agency incidents.

However, the number of fires and acres burned on national wildlife refuges this season was average.

That doesn’t mean there was not a lot of activity this year.

The season began with a 450-acre fire at Hawaii’s Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge (the first ever there), a 140-acre fire at Grand Bay Refuge in Alabama and Mississippi, and smaller fires at refuges in Oklahoma, Georgia and Kansas. Southwest fire starts continued through the winter in Oklahoma and Texas; nearly 4,700 acres burned at McFaddin Refuge, TX.

In early spring, refuge fires spread across the South and Puerto Rico, and began farther north, from California to Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, as well as Alaska. In May, a smoldering hotspot from the 2014 Funny River Fire at Alaska’s Kenai Refuge re-ignited. Thirteen Alaska refuges were hit by fire this year, burning at least 1.5 million acres of refuge lands, the most since 2004.

In early June, drought conditions led managers on Inland Northwest refuges to pre-position firefighters and engines, while refuges in northern California increased fire staffing for several weeks. In July, refuges in Florida battled wildfires, the largest at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Refuge, nearly 13,000 acres. Fires continued on refuges throughout the Southeast and Southwest.

By August, Montana refuges had also fought several large fires, and refuges in Puerto Rico were at high danger, with Cabo Rojo Refuge alone containing 10 small wildfires.

Firefighters saved headquarters buildings at two refuges: Marais des Cygnes Refuge in Kansas, from an arson-caused fire, and Wichita Mountains Refuge in Oklahoma, where firefighters used burnouts and recent prescribed- burn areas to limit fire spread from neighboring lands.

In mid-September, refuge staff from Sand Lake Refuge in South Dakota worked with several volunteer fire departments they had trained to control a large nearby wildfire sparked by a hunter.

The height of fire activity in the Pacific Northwest occurred in August and September. With firestorms raging nearby, 10 refuges in Oregon and Washington managed to sustain just limited damage, mostly a 135-acre fire on William L. Finley Refuge, OR, and a 14,000-acre fire on Hanford Reach National Monument, WA. Earlier in the year, Northwest refuges had reduced fire risk and limited potential damage with fuels management. Malheur Refuge, OR, conducted a 7,000-acre prescribed burn to remove decadent vegetation; Mid- Columbia River Refuge Complex, WA, built 75 miles of fuel breaks and Sheldon- Hart Mountain Refuge Complex, OR/NV, thinned more than 7,000 acres of invasive Western juniper.

Malheur Refuge project leader Chad Karges feels lucky the refuge avoided a potentially devastating season.

“We were in drought conditions, and prepared for the worst,” said Karges, who has worked at the refuge for 16 years. “There were wildfires on lands around the refuge, but we didn’t get the ignitions here to start fires.”

Even while their numbers are shrinking because of budget cuts, Service firefighters continue to protect more individual units across the most widespread land base of any federal agency.

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