Prescribed burning involves a lot more than a field of dry grass and a match.
Actually, the eleven U-Idaho students who participated in a service learning course and fire training exercise on the Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska during spring break knew a lot about fire before they left campus.
Still, there’s nothing like hands-on experience.
“I learned a lot about fire operations. The experience made me realize that I want to be in this career,” said Fire Ecology and Management sophomore Hayden Love. “The trip gave me a sense of direction. I kind of know now what I want to do. I have my goals and I know where I want to end up.”
The students participated with fire students from two other universities and fire professionals from nine different states and twelve local, state, federal and private organizations to conduct prescribed burns on the Preserve and on a Nebraska Game and Parks Wildlife Management Area. The fuel treatments were conducted for ecological objectives. Burning under controlled conditions will ultimately increase the health of the native prairie ecosystem by improving habitat for species such as grasses, wildflowers, prairie dogs, butterflies, upland game birds and bison. Prescribed burns are also key to fighting the encroachment of invasive species such as eastern red cedar that are of concern to local ranchers.
The students spent two days driving to Nebraska only to find 4-5 inches of snow on the ground when they arrived. They had to wait two to three days before they could begin burning. Although they didn’t get to burn as much as they had intended to, they made good use of their time.
Students got experience operating drip torches, driving engines, developing communications plans, setting wet lines to create barriers that the fire can’t cross, and mopping up after fires. They heard lectures from other, more experienced, participants about a variety of fire-related topics, such as protecting people and property from fires. And, once the vegetation had dried out, they learned how to safely prepare, plan and execute controlled burns.
“It was a huge learning opportunity for everybody,” said Penny Morgan, wildland fire program professor. “Students were doing things they’d never done before. For a lot of people it’s the only opportunity they get to do prescribed fire on this scale.”
Learning to work effectively with diverse partners was a big part of the experience: as was communication. “Communication is a common theme in the fire world,” said Megan Fitzgerald, a Natural Resources graduate student who has several years of experience as a wildland firefighter. On many large wildland fires, she explained, a mix of people from different organizations are brought together to fight it. Each organization has a different style and learning how to bridge potential communication gaps is crucial.
“I expected it to be a lot simpler. They really treated it like we were on a fire incident. It was a much bigger operation than I imagined,” said Alex Sciocchetti. The Freshman Fire Ecology and Management student said she’s decided to major in fire because she wants a career out of doors. “I like doing physical work and to have an adventure every day.”
The Nature Conservancy offers this opportunity, officially called a training exchange, to firefighters and land managers across the nation to help them develop practical skills in fire planning, leadership, ignition techniques and fire effects monitoring. In return, the Conservancy is able to use fire to restore ecological heath to the land.
“The Nature Conservancy recognized that there was more land needing fire and more land-owners who needed to be able to use fire as a tool,” said Morgan. “But they didn’t have the resources to do it themselves, so they set up this training opportunity--that’s what people get out of it.”
These kinds of experiences can also lead to jobs. Former student Steve Gisler is currently interning with the Nature Conservancy. He helped plan and prepare for the training exchange. He will soon complete his internship and return to Idaho to begin work as a seasonal firefighter for the Coeur d’Alene Hot Shot Crew. Another alumnus, Eric Molten, has just begun working for the Nature Conservancy. In part, said Morgan, because he participated in the training exercise twice, he knew the job existed, and he had the contacts and the references needed to get the job.
The Student Association for Fire Ecology raised the funds needed for student travel. They received support from the College of Natural Resources and the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences; the U-Idaho Dean of Students, Office of Community Partnerships and Service Learning Center; the Wildland Fire Science Partnership; and The Nature Conservancy. The students borrowed equipment from National Interagency Fire Center, Coeur d’Alene Fire Cache, Olympic National Forest, Idaho Department of Lands, and others.
The University of Idaho College Of Natural Resources created the nation's first Bachelor of Science in Fire Ecology and Management. The University has been recognized for more than 35 years as a national leader in teaching fire ecology, conducting fire research and educating practicing fire professionals. The Wildland Fire Program offers more courses focused on fire than any other natural resources school in the country.