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Burning The Forest For The Trees

On a clear spring afternoon recently, a massive column of smoke rose up near Lacombe, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. People reported seeing it from across the water. Down below, a fire was raging.



At the site, a concerned neighbor pulled up in his truck. But firefighters were already there.

To clarify: the firefighters were also the fire starters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was conducting a controlled burn of 620 acres of wooded marsh at the Big Branch Wildlife Refuge. They put warning signs up all around town. But that didn’t stop the steady stream of neighbors coming to make sure nothing was wrong.

Pon Dixson is a project manager at Fish and Wildlife. He says when they do these burns, locals always think it’s an accident.

“Airplane crash, house fire, the marsh is on fire—which, that’s the truth,” says Dixon. “Here comes another one. Let’s see what he’s thinking.”

Pon Dixson is a deputy project manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Credit Ryan Kailath / WWNO
Pon Dixson is a deputy project manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Several hours earlier, the team of 10 firefighters assembled on the lawn of FWS’ Southeast Louisiana Refuge, a few miles away. Fire manager Chris LeRouge was prepping them for the day’s burn. They set big swaths of the refuge on fire several times a year.

The main reason for the burn is the red-cockaded woodpecker. The bird is an endangered species, and it needs an open, clear, savannah-like habitat to thrive.

FWS discovered the bird here shortly before the refuge was established in 2001. And it changed their mission from simply preserving an area for hunting and fishing to protecting an endangered species.

Yet there are only about 15 trees where the birds nest in the 620-acre burn area.

“It’s real critical that we not let those trees burn down,” says Dixson. “Those 15 trees are very very important. They’re part of the reason why this refuge exists.”


It’s no small task to burn 620 acres of forest but spare 15 trees. The fire was set on three fronts: land, water, and air. On land, a guy with a drip torch walked the perimeter, setting marsh grass aflame. On the lake side, an airboat did the same thing. But the coup de grace is the helicopter.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer uses a drip torch
Credit Ryan Kailath / WWNO
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer uses a drip torch to burn the marshy edge of the Big Branch Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe, La.

John King has perhaps the coolest job in the whole operation. He hangs out of an open helicopter door and rains little ping-pong balls of fire on the marsh. Each one is injected with chemicals that set it aflame upon landing.

But starting the fire is the easy part. The rest of the team works on controlling it—again by land, water, and air. After raining fire, the chopper drops a 110-gallon basket, scoops water from a nearby pond, and dumps it on the areas they want to keep from burning.

A long day’s work later, 620 acres of dense forest are burned, and the 15 habitat trees a spared. If a fiery log ever got close to them, a firefighter in a bulldozer would come by and sweep it away.

For the red-cockaded woodpecker, this is “almost like the gift of a lifetime,” says Dixson.

LeRouge says the whole day cost around $15,000 or about $1,000 per tree. That’s not, however, including ten people’s salary for the day.

Is it a worthwhile price to pay for a few dozen woodpeckers? FWS says it absolutely is. One part of their mission is to conserve, protect and enhance habitats for endangered species. As LeRouge says, “This is what we do.”

Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.


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