When you think about the word “wildfire,” what do you imagine? Do you imagine a destructive fire burning everything in its path? Do you also imagine the fire’s aftermath as fresh, green growth returns shortly after the fire? Both are true. Fire is a natural process that can be both dangerous and beneficial depending on the circumstances. Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s fire management program helps to promote the positive aspects of fire while preparing for, reducing the chance of, and extinguishing wildfires.
The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 broadly mandates that national parks are to conserve and manage resources in a manner that will leave them “unimpaired for future generations.” In that regard, fire is an important natural process and a tool to promote sustained health of plant and animal regimes. Further, current National Park Service policy requires that park areas with burnable vegetation must have a fire management plan. Other fire policies and procedures are defined by the National Interagency Fire Center. Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Fire Management Plan contains operational plans for fire preparedness, preplanned dispatch, prescribed fire, and fire prevention.
Wildfires occur in Theodore Roosevelt National Park on average once or twice per year. Many variables contribute to the incidence of wildfires including weather, lightning, and human activity. Lightning is the most common cause of wildfires. Many fires that start in the uneven badlands terrain extinguish themselves as they run out of fuel on the sparsely vegetated slopes. Other naturally-caused wildfires may be declared “Wildland Fire Use” fires that can be used to achieve natural resources management goals. Fires started by humans, that threaten human lives or property, or that otherwise cannot be declared “Wildland Fire Use” fires are extinguished by firefighters.
For most of the 20th Century, wildfires were extinguished immediately with the assumption that doing so would protect lives, property, and natural areas. However, following the unusually intense fire season of 1988, agencies including the National Park Service began to rethink their policies. After many decades without fire, fuels had built up as woody plants grew and died. When wildfires started in these fuel-rich areas, they burned with great intensity. In the grasslands, just as in the forests, periodic fire plays a role in removing plant material and in promoting new growth, both essential for maintaining a mosaic of habitat age and promoting diversity. In places like the grasslands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the absence of fire allows woodier plants such as sagebrush and junipers to become established, displacing many of the grasses and forbs that many animals require to survive.
Fire is essential for grasslands diversity. From one year to the next, the makeup of plant species in grasslands can change dramatically as early successional forbs and grasses give way to other plants. By returning fire to the landscape in a responsible way, prescribed fire allows Theodore Roosevelt National Park to sustain a mixed-age grassland, to increase forage and habitat diversity for wildlife, and to reduce the impact and intensity of wildfires.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s prescribed fire program addresses three important and interrelated goals: to benefit the natural resources, to reduce hazard fuels, and to address the wildland/urban interface. “Resource benefit burning” is intended to impact certain species or groups of species, and may be done to benefit or to be harmful to one or more species. Examples are to promote grass growth by reducing woody plants, or to control non-native plants like leafy spurge. “Hazard fuel reduction” removes the buildup of fuels, such as woody plants, that contribute to larger, hotter wildfires. Lastly, “Wildland/Urban interface” fires remove fuels adjacent to populated areas to protect lives, property, and to aid in controlling wildfires. Hazard fuels and Wildland/Urban interface management goals can also be achieved by mechanical means including cutting and haying. A prescribed fire can address one or more of these goals simultaneously, and a burn is typically performed at a precise time of year and under favorable weather conditions to attain the maximum benefit.
The prescribed fire program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been successful in returning the land to a proper fire return interval, resulting in a turnover of habitat from woody plants to new growth on a timescale that approximates the frequency of natural fires. Prescribed fires have helped to set back unwanted non-native plants, reduce woody vegetation encroachment in prairies, and to positively affect wildlife grazing patterns. The Park utilizes vegetation data and maps to chart the incidence of plant species and regimes before a prescribed fire and how they change years after the burn. The vegetation data and maps are studied and used to adapt future fire management decisions to achieve desired results.
In allowing fire to play a vital role in the ecosystem while preparing for, preventing, and extinguishing dangerous wildfires, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Fire Management Program addresses both the positive and negative aspects of wildfire. The program has been successful at using fire to establish healthy and vigorous ecosystems that reflect the natural landscape, to combat non-native plants, to reduce fuels, and to protect human lives and property from uncontrolled wildfires.