U.S. Air Force and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partner to complete fuels reduction projects

A group of firefighters standing in front of a fire truck

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Air Force firefighters pose for a photo after completing a prescribed burn project on Ellsworth Air Force Base. (Photo by Mike Menning)


The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is a steward to millions of acres of lands used for national defense purposes. These lands encompass a variety of intact ecosystems, including habitat for listed threatened or endangered and at-risks species. Since 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has provided a range of scientific and technical expertise to support wildlife conservation on USAF installations. In 2017, existing partnerships were expanded to include wildland fire management, initiating a long-term plan for FWS hosted fire personnel to lead and participate on USAF Wildland Support Modules (WSM). These agreements reduce the risk of wildfires and enhance the protection of ecosystems under USAF stewardship, benefiting the FWS mission to allow protection of land and waters that are essential for the conservation of threatened, endangered, and at-risk species.

Through prescribed fire or mechanical forest fuel reduction, the FWS provided mission support to 14 USAF installations across the country in 2019. Several more projects have occurred this year. In April, the FWS assisted with a 273-acre prescribed burn on Ellsworth Air Force Base (EAFB) in South Dakota to improve management of natural habitats, maintain and improve rangeland conditions and productivity, and reduce hazardous fuel loads.

Ellsworth Air Force Base is home to 8,000 military members, family members and civilian employees and in proximity to the cities of Box Elder (population 10,000) and Rapid City (population 75,000). A wildfire near EAFB could pose serious threat to human life and property, especially in areas where homes are built in fire-prone ecosystems. Many factors influence the intensity of wildfires and their potential to damage or destroy structures, and through prescribed burns like the one at EAFB, this risk can be minimized.

The burn successfully removed an overabundance of litter and duff layer and decreased non-native grasses and woody plants, and also improved native vegetation and habitat for native pollinators. An additional component of the burn removed fuels and reduced fire risk on the north side of the military base, better protecting a portion of the base surrounding munitions storage. FWS and EAFB also partnered with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Box Elder Volunteer Fire Department to complete this project.

Over the years, the FWS has assisted in the application of prescribed fire on EAFB in order to protect residents living on the base, as well as increase the USAF's ability to maintain flight safety for military aircraft takeoff and landing zones. Burns adjacent to the flight line are designed to reduce vegetative cover and reduce habitat attractiveness to wildlife, reducing  the number of birds in areas near the flight line, including waterfowl and hawks, that pose significant aircraft strike risk.

After completing the burn at EAFB, assistance was requested at Mount Rushmore National Memorial to complete a 260-acre prescribed burn. The burn was planned to reduce accumulated fuels to reduce the chance of higher severity fires. The burn was completed with additional Fire and Emergency Services (EAFB), NPS, and FWS.

This type of partnership with the USAF provides opportunities for interagency assistance in managing habitats, reducing fire fuels, and managing fire hazards. Partnerships like this also provide opportunities for interagency personnel to gain critical on-the-ground experience with fire behavior across a variety of fuel types and weather conditions, which expands the knowledge, skills, and abilities of firefighters.

The Air Force Wildland Fire Branch (AFWFB), part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Environmental Directorate, was established in July 2012 to manage increasing wildland fire threats to Air Force missions. The AFWFB is a collaborative operation with FWS, Colorado State University, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Steward Guild, and the University of Montana, focused on ensuring military preparedness through the execution of fuel reduction activities and wildfire mitigation.

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