Father’s Day: Playing with Fire

“Don’t play with fire.”

As kids most of us heard that line. But what if your job is setting managed, controlled fires to benefit people, water and wildlife? And how exactly would you explain that to your kids?

Sam Lindblom is The Nature Conservancy in Virginia’s director of land management and a trainer of fireworkers in the Fire Learning Network. He also happens to be the father of two boys.

Sam discusses with Conservancy Talk how controlled burns give nature a boost, and how he explains his work to his boys.

Conservancy Talk: How did you first get interested in the restorative power of fire for nature?

Sam Lindblom: My first experiences with the restorative power of fire came while backpacking as a young boy through the Conecuh National Forest near my hometown in south Alabama with my own father, brother, and our Scout troop. It was an impressive sight to walk through burned areas, only to cross a fireline and enter into a recently burned and beautiful longleaf pine savannah, complete with wiregrass, quail, bears and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. I came to realize that you can’t have one without the other.

Later in my college years I spent my summers as a backpacking Ranger in Northeastern New Mexico. Back then fire suppression was part of the gig and we were occasionally dispatched to extinguish lightning strikes up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What I loved most of all from those experiences was not only the hard work, but seeing the many patches of forests that had burned before, now covered in grasses and wildflowers, and generally, where we’d see the most wildlife.

Conservancy Talk: And today you use controlled burns to achieve benefits for the outdoors?

Lindblom: My team works to maintain or create high-quality habitat, often for the benefit of rare and endangered species. Fire is a major shaper of ecosystems, and we can restore it successfully. So that’s why we focus so much on fire management.

So everything involved with fire — the places we burn, wildfires, fire-ecology research, planning, equipment, training — is part of my job. I also work with our agency partners to secure funding, and we help each other conduct fires on our respective lands. The Nature Conservancy has been doing these kinds of controlled burns for 50 years.

Sam LindblomConservancy Talk: You were with your own father when you saw fire’s effect in the woods. Now as a father yourself, do your kids understand how, and why, you use fire to restore the outdoors?

Lindblom: They do, sort of… When I tuck the boys in the night before heading to a fire, I tell them, “Daddy’s headed out to a fire early in the morning and I’ll be home as soon as possible.” Generally, my youngest son wants to know, “is it a good or a bad fire?”

Thankfully, the vast majority of fires I work on are good fires; planned and well executed controlled burns or remote lightning strikes in large unfragmented landscapes that are far from towns. These fires are critical to the health of our wild places. Less frequently, but still common nonetheless, are destructive megafires that harm or threaten communities and properties.

When I return usually my oldest wants to know if I flew in the helicopter or did something exciting — but usually our controlled burns are what we call “spectacular non-events.” That is, they are fun to watch and execute, but boring in the sense all the firelines are safe. That’s how we like them.

My youngest always gives me a hug and proclaims, “You smell like smoke!” He freely admits that he likes the smell, and frankly, I do, too.

Conservancy Talk: When your kids are grown, what do you hope they’ll see as a result of your work?

Lindblom: I hope more than anything that they’ll grow up knowing there are wild places out there that are healthy; that natural processes occur, wildlife and vegetation are dynamic and healthy, and these places are all around and intrinsically linked to human health. I want my children to not only appreciate them, but visit them frequently. Maybe, just maybe, they will pursue the same career path, though that’s not necessary.

For me it’s not about the fire, it’s about the places; the landscapes that support our natural heritage. I hope my children grow up with the same ethic.

Sam Lindblom serves as director of land management and fire manager for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. He returned to the Virginia program in 2007 after a five-year stint with the Conservancy’s global fire initiative, for which he led fire training for staff across the organization and for partners. From 1996-2002, he served as land steward in Virginia, after having started with the Conservancy’s North Carolina program in 1995. Sam graduated from Auburn University with a degree in environmental sciences.

You can support Sam’s work, and the training of other Nature Conservancy fire workers when you Adopt a Fireworker. Learn how »

[First image: Sam Lindblom reviews a map to assess progress of a prescribed burn at Piney Grove Preserve, Virginia. Image source: Robert Clontz/TNC. Second image: Lindblom with his two sons. Image source: Sam Lindblom]

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