Jeremy Bailey is the Fire Learning Network Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.
It started with snow and ended with snow.
Our goal was to train 65 fire workers and students from five western universities to safely use fire to restore several thousand acres of forests and grassland along Nebraska’s Niobrara River. But during the months of preparation for this fire training, we hadn’t counted on a late blizzard rolling across the Plains.
Could we still pull it off?
The training was attended by more than three dozen students from the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, University of Idaho, University of California-Berkeley, and New Mexico Highlands University. They were eager to learn how to use fire to safely restore our nation’s forests and grasslands. As The Nature Conservancy has been using fire as a restoration tool for 50 years, we helped organize and lead the training through the Fire Learning Network.
The students’ first lesson came in the form of navigating through a blizzard to get to the training. University of Idaho students were met by a search party tracking them on rural roads; a crew from New Mexico decided to leave their vehicle in town and hitched a ride with the incident commander.
It was a heck of way to start a training. But the students refused to be deterred by the flakes, and we as organizers embraced the opportunity to challenge them.
This kind of experience represents a new approach. For the past five years The Nature Conservancy and federal, state, and private organizations have been building a new kind of fire training, in which every participant is a student — and also a teacher.
Even the most experienced firefighters still have much to learn, and those just starting have much to share. The area we intended to burn was along the Niobrara River just east of Valentine, Nebraska, near the Conservancy’s own Niobrara Valley Preserve. The region experienced large wildfires in July 2012, and today the community is still reeling from the blackened acres, the loss of forage for their animals, and homes that burned.
In fact, it was these previously burned areas where we anchored our own controlled burns, as they were at low risk to burn again. This way we could limit the potential for our controlled burns to escape.
While the crews of students, local land-owners, federal and state agencies, municipal fire departments, private contractors and non-profit organizations tried to apply “good fire” — the rejuvenating burns these grasslands need — neighbors came to visit and discuss the value of controlled burns.
Still raw from the previous year’s fires, some neighbors arrived upset, but after talking most recognized the importance of reducing the danger to their community. By being proactive and trying to burn during the right weather conditions with plenty of firefighters on hand, we are reducing the chances residents will have to fight a dangerous wildfire during the hot summer.
Building support for “good fire” is important. A good fire is one that meets pre-planned objectives to either restore or maintain “fire adapted ecosystems” — natural areas that al depend on fire to thrive. Biologists estimate that as much as one-third of the Unites States burned at least once every 35 years. Quail, songbirds, elk, and many other species have come to depend on the tender new plant growth that low-intensity fires encourage.
Besides neighbors we had other visitors, too. Local volunteer firefighters came to watch from safe vantage points. Some of our burn bosses escorted television and radio reporters who came to learn about controlled burns.
So… despite the wintry weather, were we successful with our controlled burns?
Over two weeks we managed to apply 4,200 acres of controlled burns safely across lands that sorely needed this natural force of fire.
We worked long days without breaks, fighting freezing temperatures and strong winds, on a landscape with drought conditions in the forests and heavily grazed pastures that only carried fire under the best of conditions. We got vehicles stuck, broke equipment, went hungry, and got sick.
After two weeks of hard work, the celebratory moment came when the crews had lit a ridge just above the Niobrara River. A snake of fire six miles long glowed well into the night as a managed prairie fire moved from the grass to dry pines, and fire was restored to its natural place.
That was the moment I knew we had “passed” this training.
So what does a controlled burn look like? Travel with our students to the Conservancy’s Broxton Rocks Preserve in Georgia to find out. View video »