A prescription for safety: burning in the wildland urban interface

Smoke rises from a fire burning in a coastal scrub landscape

Fire crews manage a 30-acre prescribed fire at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. The burn will increase the safety of local communities situated near the wildland urban interface. (USFWS photo)


The use of prescribed fire is a valuable tool in preventing catastrophic wildfires and promoting natural ecological processes of fire dependent ecosystems. Historically, habitats in Florida have evolved with regular natural occurrences of fire. Several factors, including urban encroachment, have reduced the acceptance to allow naturally occurring fires to exist across much of the country. Oftentimes, action needs to be taken to suppress fires, destructive wildfire potential increases, especially in the wildland urban interface (WUI), without active management to reduce fire risk, such as through prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is an important management tool utilized to fulfill the mission and goals of Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Florida. Prescribed fire helps restore and maintain biological integrity of refuge habitats, helping to manage for threatened and endangered species and wildlife diversity, and reducing threats to public health and safety from potential catastrophic wildfires in those communities near the WUI. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) utilizes prescribed fire to improve sensitive wildlife habitats, but also reduce the threat of wildfires that could negatively impact resources and surrounding community properties. On August 10, Archie Carr NWR successfully completed a uniquely challenging 30-acre prescribed fire in dense coastal scrub. The goal of the burn was to better protect the surrounding community and infrastructure located near the burn unit.

Over the years, this area has presented several unique challenges, as it is located adjacent to a shopping center and has experienced wildfire in recent history, when an ember from a wildfire landed on the roof of the nearby Publix supermarket and ignited it. The area is also known to contain dense concentrations of homeless encampments, increasing the potential for wildfire danger to human life, as well as the increased potential for human caused fires. Each of these factors requires fire managers to continually manage vegetation density in the area, as well as maintaining established firelines  

Being situated less than 100 feet from the ocean, fire managers must adhere to strict wind direction criteria within the prescription to ensure nearby communities are not heavily impacted by smoke from the burn. Additionally, being located near main thoroughfares and shopping areas, the burn plan always includes significant safety considerations given the density of the population within close proximity. 

Although Archie Carr NWR does not employ fire staff, managers maintain a strong relationship with nearby community members and consistently gain support for short duration burns, despite potential smoke impacts to the community. All burn projects are managed with resources from the southeast. Additionally, successful completion of projects requires assistance from county and state resources. 

Given the fragmented, linear nature of the refuge, Archie Carr NWR is heavily bordered by urban interface, making fire management highly necessary to protect adjacent developed properties. Prior to any prescribed fire, each refuge coordinates with land management partners and local emergency management services and fire departments. Refuges also notify the public in advance when prescribed fires are planned. This most recent burn was successfully completed within prescription and the surrounding communities are better protected against the potential for wildfire danger in the future.

The burn was successfully completed in partnership with Merritt Island NWR in Florida, The Nature Conservancy, Brevard Recreation and Parks, and the Florida Division of Forestry.

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