Wildlife refuge managers intentionally set fires to 'garden' a forest

Published: Apr. 28, 2017 at 2:34 PM CDT|Updated: May. 1, 2017 at 6:51 PM CDT
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Chris LeRouge walks along some woods in the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge near Lacombe, igniting and fueling a fire.

LeRouge heads a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that routinely lights the piney woods on fire.

"Fire is a tool that we use to manage the refuge," LeRouge said.  "And, of course, fire used to be here before man."

In that sense, the firefighters are mimicking nature and the role fire once played in sculpting this landscape.

LeRouge confesses friends are often confused about his job.

"They all think that I'm a structural firefighter.  They say, 'oh, you work for Jefferson Parish.'

He explains he gets paid, "to set the woods on fire."

North of Lake Pontchartrain, Big Branch encompasses roughly 15,000 acres, a protected area with a split personality.

From coastal marshes and bayous, it transitions to woods.

"It used to be a pine savannah and a pine flat wood," said Denny Breaux, the refuge manager.

Over a century ago, from St. Tammany Parish to Florida, forests had a grassy floor and towering pine trees.  The thick undergrowth familiar to hikers today would have been much less common.

"Not a lot of bushes and stuff, not a lot of brush growing in," Breaux said.

Species that live in the Big Branch Marsh, such as the endangered red-cockaided woodpecker, depend on fire to clear the forests of the undergrowth.

"This is still dangerous," LeRouge points out as the crew of half a dozen men and women fan out along the roadside and in the woods to monitor the fire.

They set test fires as a first step to ensure the flames behave as they expect, depending on such factors as winds, humidity, temperature and recent rainfall.

"When the fire's behavior and the weather conditions stayed within our parameters, that's basically the green light for us to continue pulling the fire into the wind, then across the unit," LeRouge said.

Each year, refuge managers burn a couple thousand acres.

A fire break surrounds all of the fire zones through roads or a gap cut with a bulldozer.

"If it's burned properly, burned under the right conditions, you almost never see it jump the line."

Everyone involved in the burn goes through a training program offered by The National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

"Everybody that fights fires out west, including us, we go out and fight fires, they all go through the same training,"

In nature, fires occurred in this area every three to five years.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, firefighters say, the controlled burns serve as fire prevention.

"By setting a fire, we're actually preventing a larger fire from occurring," LeRouge said.  "The fuel would build up from the period of time that fire was absent.  When fire was set, either natural or man made, the fire behavior would be extreme."

At that point, fire can be very difficult to control, a lesson learned in developed areas of the western U.S. where massive wildfires have raged.

By constantly suppressing fires, man sows the seeds for massive wildfires.

"Fire's been out of that system for about a hundred years and when fire comes back in, you're going to see these big, catastrophic ones," Breaux said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service points out a natural fire here, with less fuel on the ground, would be less intense and less of a threat to surrounding neighborhoods.

However, the main purpose of the controlled burns reflects the refuge's goal of creating a more natural habitat for wildlife and plant life.

"We're really gardeners," LeRouge said.  "Fire's a tool that we use to manage a garden that we're trying to create for woodpeckers and flowers and endangered species."

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