• Sierra del Carmen

    Big Bend

    National Park Texas

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Managing Fire

Santa Elena Canyon-Sublett Prescribed Fire, summer 2006
Santa Elena Canyon-Sublett Prescribed Fire, summer 2006.
NPS/Big Bend National Park
 

The park now manages fire as a critically important natural process that is allowed to resume its original role in crafting and influencing the plant and wildlife communities of the national park. The task is to manage the natural process of fire in ways that avoid negative impacts on resources and do not threaten human life and property.

Wildland Fire

Any fire started by accident or by natural causes such as lightning is designated a wildland fire. Big Bend averages ten unplanned fires during the prime fire season, March through July. Each wildland fire is intensively monitored by park staff members who decide on a daily basis whether the fire should be put out.

Prescribed Fire

A prescribed fire is any fire intentionally ignited by management to meet specific objectives such as reduction of flammable materials around developed areas. Each of these fires has a written prescription, a detailed plan on the type of weather, staffing, and other conditions which must be met before the fire can be set. If conditions change and the fire is no longer within prescription, it will be immediately extinguished.

For example, strong winds are common in Big Bend. A prescribed fire is postponed or suppressed if high winds are forecast for the park region. The National Park Service is also concerned about smoke and how it impacts human health and air visibility. Winds sometimes shift direction after a prescribed fire is started. If those winds bring large amounts of smoke to areas of high human use, the fire is put out.

The cost of using a prescribed fire to reduce an overload of flammable material can be as low as $48/acre. Putting out a wildfire with excessive amounts of dead wood could easily top $800/acre. Thus, a well-planned program of prescribed burns could cost only 1/16th the price of traditional firefighting.

In some sections of the park we may apply prescribed fire as a tool to eliminate or reduce exotic species such as tamarisk and buffel grass and to encourage native species like mesquite trees and desert grasses. Fire-adapted native plants germinate or sprout immediately after a fire and may replace exotic vegetation. For example, the roots of mesquite are rarely killed in a fire. Even if the entire above-ground portion of the tree is consumed by flames the plant can sent new shoots up from the surviving roots.

Restoring Fire in Big Bend

We will always have fires in Big Bend. We have learned that our original policy of total fire suppression not only made drastic changes in the local ecosystem, it also led to a hazardous buildup of dead wood and brush.

The new policies and attitudes towards fire management will restore and reinvigorate Big Bend's plant and animal communities to more natural conditions. Proper fire management will also enable us to more easily contain future fires that threaten human life, property, and precious resources.

Did You Know?

The Big Bend Mosquitofish

The Big Bend Mosquitofish (Gambusia Gaigei) has the smallest known home range of any vertebrate species. It is found in the wild only in a few small spring pools in the area of Rio Grande Village.