Written by Debby de Carlo/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Sandhill cranes and other birds wintering to the south will be flying north to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the months ahead. Many will stop, rest and refuel at the refuge.

Refuge wildlife biologist Ed Sparks and others on the Refuge staff are already making sure there will be places for migrating birds. “Bulrush and other perennials don’t get enough sunlight in the spring as the tops die off and get matted.” Those areas are less productive, Sparks noted. “By burning bulrush, we hit the reset button. The roots don’t burn, but the rest of the grass does, allowing sunlight to get through and createnew growth.”

This year, Dan Yturriondobeitia, Forestry Technician for the Refuge will be at work burning an area of about 1700 acres on the Double O Ranch. “There’s bulrush, cattail and native meadow grasses,”  Yturriondobeitia explained. By opening it up, nutrients are released for deer and antelope. “We plan on doing the burn in February just before nesting birds arrive.”

Yturriondobeitia and his fellow fire manager Shane Theall use drip torches to set the fires, making sure conditions are just right. Relative humidity and winds are factors. They use a computer program to tell them when the time is optimal.  Still, even with such technology, it’s only a guide, he said. “Conditions are dynamic.”Fire trucks are on hand just in case the wind kicks up, and the area mowed as well, making sure neighboring property is safe.Part of the prep is meeting with RefugeMaintenance staff. “They identify things we don’t want to burn like fish traps. They let us use a lot of their tractors,” Yturriondobeitia added.

“Fighting fires evolves,” he continued. “We use best practices.” In fact, Yturriondobeitia worked at a desk job in Boise for a while, where he helped design new equipment. But he missed being outside, and so, he and other staff will be on the ground later this month, creating resting–and nesting– areas for the birds to come.