Student firefighter in the field

Nation’s Hottest Fire Education Program

Only Bachelor's Degree in the Nation Focused on Wildland Fire

By Sue McMurray

With millions of acres burned in the U.S. every year due to wildland fire, land managers across the nation are looking to University of Idaho graduates to help them develop innovative fire management strategies.

Why Idaho? For more than 30 years, Idaho's natural resources students have practiced fire management through a prescribed burning lab, one of only four courses of its kind offered at universities in the U.S. They’ve learned fire ecology of forests and rangelands, and how to incorporate that into management.

"Through the fire program, I found it very useful to have learned fire history, policy and behavior, and then to be able to take that to the lab and write a prescribed burning plan using both the pre-burn field sampling data and fire behavior models," says Samantha Arneberg, a 2009 graduate.

Arneberg is a good example of how curricular choices may be optimized to create a career path. Arneberg earned degrees in two subjects that most interested her: fire ecology and management and forest resources.

"The more I started learning about forests and their management issues, the more I felt a drive to understand our past mistakes and successes and the scientific research that can lead to better management practices," says Arneberg. "In addition, fire will always be a part of our ecosystem, and with an  increase in the wildland urban interface, fire managers will forever be trying to figure out the best management for both the people and the environment."

Students in the fire program plan, conduct and evaluate prescribed burns at the university’s Experimental Forest using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, field data, and simulation models. They learn to assess potential fire hazard, understand how and why fires ignite and spread, develop fuels-management practices to protect people and property and understand the effects of fire on ecosystems. Many also gain valuable experience working as fire fighters and fire managers while they are students.

College of Natural Resources fire students are given opportunities to gain real world experience by being challenged with issues such as time constraints, budgets, crew size and conceptualizing data. They discuss current science findings relevant to management challenges faced by practicing fire professionals.

"We work to give each student new experiences and responsibilities, pairing more experienced students with less experienced students," says Penny Morgan, professor of fire ecology in the College of Natural Resources. "Students learn by doing and also learn from fire management leaders in the region."

In spring 2010, a fuels inventory and management class learned to develop a fuels inventory protocol for Ponderosa State Park, the Harold Nokes Experimental Forest and the McCall Field Campus. Students assessed the effectiveness of forest thinning to reduce crown fire potential in urban interface areas, and created inventory procedures that could capture the fuel characteristics of more than 3,000 acres of forest. Students are implementing the fuel treatments and using the protocol to monitor the effectiveness of fuel treatments there.  

"We were taught methodologies used for assessing fuels and given an opportunity to make management decisions that would actually be applied in the field," says Ted Adams, a student who worked on the fuels inventory project. "The knowledge gained earlier in the course gave us the responsibility and confidence to make our own judgment calls, much like we may have to later in life."

CNR's fire program offers the only bachelor's degree in the nation that focuses on wildland fire. Students also have the option to earn an undergraduate or graduate-level certificate in fire ecology and management, or a minor in fire ecology and management. CNR also offers fire courses online to fire professionals from across the U.S. and world.