Keeping Good Company: A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and CAL FIRE Partnership, Part 1

San Diego National Wildlife Refuge firefighters.

Firefighters with the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge during a training hike. Photo by Pedro Gomez, USFWS.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) fire management program is primarily focused on using planned fire to maintain healthy ecosystems and habitats. In California, though, a partnership with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) makes it possible for the USFWS to focus on wildfire suppression during the height of the fire season.

Across California, the USFWS manages 470,773 acres. As urban development continues to encroach on rural landscapes, the need for prescribed fire, other fuel treatments, and fire suppression is increasing. Due to the fragmented nature of USFWS-managed lands, staff is dispersed over wide areas, and many national wildlife refuges do not have firefighters or suppression resources on-site. Like most other firefighting agencies, this means the USFWS must rely on cooperation from partners to assist in wildfire suppression.

The USFWS has partnered with CAL FIRE for several decades through a cooperative program that supports mutual aid for fire protection services between CAL FIRE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and USFWS. The California Master Cooperative Wildland Fire Management and Stafford Act Response Agreement documents agency commitments to improve efficiency by facilitating the coordination and exchange of personnel, equipment, supplies, services, information, and funds among participating agencies.

Through this agreement, the USFWS and CAL FIRE have collaborated on wildfire suppression on USFWS-managed lands, especially in areas that traditionally have a low fire frequency or where the refuge footprint is small. Under the agreement, the response protocol for the closest agency is used, regardless of jurisdiction, while also maintaining specific land management goals. The USFWS fire management program provides pre-attack guidance and mapping products to outline land management goals and measures to avoid impacts on sensitive habitat. Through this cooperative relationship, CAL FIRE and USFWS fire personnel can support both federal and state wildfire incidents.

In California, the USFWS operates within four fire management zones. Each zone maintains two wildland fire engines and personnel during eight-hour periods, but they are also available during off hours with a minimal delay. CAL FIRE maintains 24-hour availability with engines, dozers, hand crews, aviation resources, incident management teams, and the ability to integrate unified command during emergency situations. CAL FIRE’s round-the-clock staffing and response are vital to the success of fire suppression throughout state, local, and federal lands in California.

Kari Cobb is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.