University of Idaho Students, Staff Partner with Natural Resource Organizations to Gain Fire Leadership Experience

Friday, August 7 2009

MOSCOW, Idaho – Four people dealing with fire research and education from the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources “burned the midnight oil” earlier this semester by driving more than 60 hours roundtrip to work with The Nature Conservancy on using fire to improve landscapes.

The team, comprised of Brian Austin, from Manchester, Mo.; Gabe Cortez, from Los Angeles, Calif.; Cody Fox, from Kettle Falls, Wash; and Heather Heward, from Port Angeles, Wash., traveled to Van Buren, Mo., more than 1,900 miles away from Moscow. They spent nearly a week learning how to conduct controlled burns on different fuel types, practice leading fire crews, and expanding their knowledge of fire behavior and management.

“I gained some lessons in leadership working with inexperienced fire fighters and helping them learn various fire ignition tactics and general fire knowledge,” said Cortez. “It helped me improve my communication skills and expand my own fire knowledge.”

At the invitation of TNC, the team participated in several controlled burns. One took place on a privately owned site where TNC was asked to reintroduce fire into a historic stand that had not burned for more than 50 years. While an interior stand of old growth pines was identified and protected from base root scorch, the team burned several acres until the fire burned too intensely, and they took supression actions.

The second burn on 3,700 acres involved several ownerships and resources from different agencies. Working under the direction of the burn boss, Cortez led teams of ignition crews – called "lighters" – around the perimeter and through the interior of burn units, applying fire with drip torches. The lighters were in charge of igniting approximately one fourth of the unit, burning mostly oak litter and shrubs, while taking care to meet the goals and objectives of the burn plan.

The third and final burn took place on approximately 1,500 acres of TNC land, mostly consisting of oak litter and understory shrubs. The university team, along with six TNC crew members and a burn boss, were the only resources on the fire. Cortez and Heward were the acting firing bosses and made burn management decisions related to controlling fire temperature and anticipating climate behavior.

“This was a great opportunity to work in a different fuel type than we have in the West,” said Heward. “I plan on continuing to volunteer for TNC and continue my training as a firing boss and crew boss, and we intend to send other students in the University of Idaho Wildland Fire Program to work with TNC in the future.”

Jeremy Bailey, TNC fire training and networks coordinator, coordinated the team’s visit to Missouri and has previously worked with Cortez and Heward.

“These kinds of training exchanges are designed to benefit all participants. We recognize that everyone can contribute by being both a student and a teacher,” Bailey said. “We were very impressed by the quality of University of Idaho firefighters and appreciated their commitment to excellence and their willingness to volunteer during their spring vacation.”

Written by Sue McMurray

Photos are available at