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College of Natural Resources
phone: (208) 885-8981
toll free: 88-88-UIDAHO
fax: (208) 885-5534

875 Perimeter Drive MS 1142
Moscow, ID 83844-1142
putting out a section of burn

Service Learning Ignited in TREX

Many successful students don’t let grass grow under their feet. Others take it one step further, spending their spring break strategically burning that grass.

Twelve University of Idaho students endured a grueling road trip to spend their spring holiday immersed in fire management strategy, live burns and collaborative strategies on the vast grasslands of Nebraska. Some with fire experience, some without, teamed up with U.S. Forest Service personnel, firefighters, and other students on a large Nature Conservancy holding in Nebraska for the sixth annual Niobrara Valley Preserve Spring Break TREX.

TREX (Prescribed Fire Training Exchange) is a training program led by The Nature Conservancy and brings together agencies, students, landowners and more to learn together how best to use fire in land management. The annual TREX event is the culminating field experience of a 400-level fire ecology and management class in the College of Natural Resources. Taught by Penny Morgan, the class is not a requirement for a degree but the class, which focuses on ecology, is encouraged for those who plan a career in wildfire fighting or management.

TREX participants

“TREX is a valuable application of what we teach in the classroom,” Morgan said. “It really drives home what fire management is about.”

For students like Kyle Swanstrom, 21, it is the first big taste of firefighting.

A sophomore, Swanstrom has committed to the fire ecology and management program after a brief foray in mechanical engineering. He wanted something more hands-on and, remembering his time as a high school senior working for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, he chose fire ecology and management. “I enjoyed learning about fire,” he said. “And if I can learn while doing, that is even better.”

TREX began in 2008 with four sites and attended primarily by staff of The Nature Conservancy, with a showing by the U.S. Forest Service, landowner and a couple students from the University of Idaho.

One of those students was Gabriel Cortez, a nontraditional student who came to the fire program after being injured as a smokejumper. While it was not a career-ending injury, it was the spark to set a course toward earning his degree. He became an active member of Student Assocation of Fire Ecology, through which he saw the enthusiasm and drive of his fellow students. Their enthusiasm for hands-on experience led him to investigate training opportunities in the region, but he had little return. That is when Jeremy Bailey came to mind. The two had worked together on fires and Jeremy had taken a job with the Nature Conservancy.

“The main reason I called him is because Jeremy has such a great can-do attitude.”

In 2008 Cortez and Heather Heward, now an instructor in the CNR Fire Ecology and Management Program, travelled to Montana to work and learn on a prescribed burn for the Nature Conservancy. In 2009 they went to Missouri over Spring Break and burned in the Ozarks.

“It was just a great experience,” Cortez said. “In 2010 we didn’t do anything over spring break so I was kind of bummed. I was planning to graduate the next year and I knew we had to do something.”

Niobrara TREX burn at night
Together with Bailey and Cody Fox, a fellow CNR student and co-president of SAFE, the first Niobrara TREX was established and the University of Idaho was the first university to experience TREX.

Fire as a management tool is not something Idaho wildfire firefighters are readily trained in. Brian Russell, 25, a senior in fire ecology and management, has spent the last six summers fighting fires across the West. He was most impressed with the difference in geography.

“It was my first time on the Plains. The weather is crazy.”

The first morning on site, they awoke to an inch of snow, making the likelihood of burning that week questionable. But within a day temperatures were in the 60s and the crews accomplished six prescribed burns totaling more than 3,800 acres.

Each day crews were assigned different tasks in an effort to vary the experiences and training. With average burns each day of 500-700 acres, Russell said this was by far the most experience he has had in prescribed burning.

Swanstrom used the opportunity to begin working on his firefighter credentials. He earned his Type 2 firefighting credits as a result of the class and service learning trip.

Senior JB Playfair, 21, a senior in Fire Ecology and Management, said dealing with fire on the plains was much different than his experience fighting fire on the Salmon/Challis District of the forest, where he has worked the last three summers. He is particularly interested in restoring fire to ecosystems instead of suppressing it. He hopes to go to Australia to learn how fire is managed there.

“I am a very hands-on person,” he said. While he enjoys the management principles of fire, he is also interested in the human elements of the teams.

“I learned a lot about people,” he said of the multi-agency TREX environment.

For Cortez, now a smokejumper with the Redmond Smokejumpers in Oregon, things came full circle. He returned to Niobrara this spring in a fire management role, working with the UI students.

“My role within the TREX has evolved,” Cortez said. “Because TREX made such a difference in my life, I was glad I was able to give back a little bit.”

Full crew of student participants