USFWS and CAL FIRE personnel complete a prescribed fire along the roadside to protect access to public lands. Photo by USFWS.
BY KARI COBB
The South Central Valley Fire Management Zone in Merced County is among the busiest fire zones in California. Every year, the zone experiences 10 to 15 wildfires, many of which become large fires due to the mix of upland, wetland, and riparian vegetation combined with a dry climate and frequent windy conditions.
In Merced County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the Merced and San Luis national wildlife refuges, which span 40,000 acres. The USFWS has conservation easements on an additional 60,000 acres. Easement lands often serve as a buffer around refuges, meaning that fires on easement land can easily threaten a wildlife refuge as well.
Although the USFWS manages wildlife conservation easements on these lands, the agency is not responsible for providing fire suppression. Further complicating wildfire management in these areas, the boundary between a refuge and easement is frequently indicated only by a levee, two-track road, fence, or property marker.
Accessing some fires in easement areas can prove difficult, and it is not unusual for USFWS firefighters to arrive on the scene first. A partnership with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) allows the USFWS to act promptly. When CAL FIRE personnel arrive, the USFWS will then continue suppression efforts alongside them. No matter who arrives on scene first, the same suppression strategy is employed because it was established at pre-season planning meetings and documented in the agencies’ annual operating plans.
Beyond CAL FIRE, the USFWS works collaboratively with other federal agencies, Tribes, states, local fire departments, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations to improve joint stewardship of the land; maintain healthy and productive ecosystems; and protect people, property, and communities from the threat of wildfire.
The USFWS protects and manages 75 million acres of burnable lands, primarily national wildlife refuges, across all 50 states and U.S. territories. These refuges are surrounded by more than 700 communities, making partnerships with local fire departments essential.
Kari Cobb is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.