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Degrees of learning: Prescribed burn classes give students an edge in the real world

The morning’s air felt thick. It wasn’t ideal.

As the students gathered into the wood-paneled classroom at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, Mark Melvin bit his lip. The plans that day called for their first hands-on prescribed burn, at a pie-shaped piece of land near Ichauway’s skeet range. Conditions weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great.

Melvin, prescribed fire management specialist at the Jones Center who is instrumental in teaching an annual spring break course in prescribed burning, remained hopeful. More or less.

“I spent about an hour this morning thinking about how we were going to burn,” says Melvin as he pulled up a web browser for the class to look at the numbers. In three hours, the fuel moisture had changed from 15.4% to 22.4%, just a little too wet to comfortably burn wiregrass. “If it was dry and it was going to be windy today, we’d probably be out there right now with our test fire. Even though these aren’t ideal conditions, it’s good because it gives us some flexibility.”

The devil may be in the details, but the details are essential for something like a prescribed burn, where smoke can quickly become a liability and the weather can be predictable in its unpredictability. The morning’s ever-changing conditions were a real-world lesson, though, and one reason why the students had taken the four-hour drive from Athens to spend their spring break in South Georgia surrounded by longleaf pine.

The spring break class at the Jones Center, now in its 20th year, is one of two opportunities students have to get hands-on experience with prescribed fire. Another spring break class takes place at the Savannah River Site outside Augusta and is in its fourth year. Because of the locations and the partner organizations for each class, they offer different perspectives, methods and takeaways. But current and former students who have taken the classes say they are grateful for the experience, and their understanding of fire has only expanded their opportunities after graduation.

“I went into the prescribed fire course without any expectations, and I thought the program was really, really cool,” says Lauren Head (BSFR ’20), who graduated this year with a degree in wildlife sciences and took the course at the Jones Center in 2019. “It was not something I would expect to get hands-on experience within college. I was very excited to get that experience as an undergrad.”

 

LONGLEAF LOCATION

Students listen to instructions as they begin a prescribed burn exerciseAt the Jones Center, students are immersed in a longleaf pine ecosystem. They spend their spring break not only learning about fire dynamics, weather reports and how to create a burn plan, but also about the benefits of fire for plants and animals that thrive in these forests. They may begin a day in the classroom, but soon file out into waiting vans to learn from Jones Center experts on, for example, how fire benefits wetlands or red-cockaded woodpeckers. 

The class began as a Maymester experience, but the timing always proved difficult for burning, says faculty member Holly Campbell. Over the years, the course has been tweaked to reflect the needs of the students or complement what was being taught on campus. Today, it reflects a balance of hands-on activities, opportunities for safe burning and classroom instruction.

 Not only are the students getting exposed to fire, adds David Clabo, who teaches the course with Campbell, but students are also gaining a fuller understanding of how fire can benefit an ecosystem.

“The Jones Center course covers a lot of the fundamentals. If a student works with fire later in their career, they can build upon those fundamentals and get specific for the area they are working in,” says Clabo, assistant professor of silviculture outreach based at UGA’s Tifton campus. “Let’s say they work out west over a summer; they learn the fundamentals at the Jones Center and build upon that in their career.”

  It can also work in the opposite direction. For example, Luke Porter (MS ’20) came to Warnell with a few years of wildland firefighting experience under his belt. But he was interested in taking the Jones Center course to learn more about fire management in the Southeast. 

Out west, he says, fire is a different animal—you have extremely dry conditions, a variety of vegetation and mountainous terrain that turn each fire into a different experience. But if a western fire is an uninvited guest who blows in through your front door and starts rooting through your fridge, a prescribed fire in the South sits on your porch and holds a conversation. Good fires are planned in their route as well as their benefits. 

It’s something Porter says he wanted to know better, and the Jones Center class gave him that opportunity.

“I think it’s really cool to use prescribed burns in the South. I know we are doing a lot better job and getting people out west to burn more, but it’s harder because of the nature of what they face,” says Porter, who pursued a master’s degree in forestry after working for the South Carolina Forestry Commission and the U.S. Forest Service. “But here in the Southeast, we’re breaking that mold.”

Fires are a natural part of nearly every environment. Porter, whose first job after college was making maps, notes maps of places in the world where fires happen: “Fires occur wherever there’s fuel,” he says. “So, anywhere. You can’t take it out of the environment, but you can control it. And that’s what prescribed burning does.”

 

GETTING CARDED

A few hundred miles away, near the border where Georgia tucks into South Carolina, another dozen students were suiting up for a similar challenge. Here, though, the students in professor Doug Aubrey’s prescribed fire course were working alongside U.S. Forest Service employees to maintain the Savannah River Site’s roughly 200,000 acres.

While students taking both courses must first complete a pre-test, the Savannah River Site course must adhere to more strict federal standards. Students are required to take a wildland firefighter training course over two weekends prior to heading out to receive their “red card”—a certification allowing them to work on a prescribed fire with a federal agency.

A student walks across a longleaf pine forest with a drip torchThe red card is one major difference between the two prescribed fire classes. The second is the way in which students experience fire. Fires at the Jones Center are more of a family affair, with staff on hand to help out if needed but in general happy to hang back and let the students take a leading role in setting a line or walking with a drip torch. Neighbors have grown accustomed to regular burning on the property, and the location in general lends itself to fewer issues with smoke.

In contrast, at the Savannah River Site, U.S. Forest Service personnel work the fires full-time and have a battery of equipment to tackle thousands of acres, if necessary. While Melvin notes the largest fire he’s ever burned at the Jones Center was several thousand acres—something he doesn’t plan to attempt again any time soon—that’s a more typical fire at the Savannah River Site.

“I think what they experience on the Savannah River site is probably a whole other level compared to what’s at Ichauway,” says Aubrey. “Here, somewhere between 15 and 20 Forest Service people are involved in prescribed fires as 100% of their job. And, we’re probably involved in somewhere over 3,000 acres of fire, primarily due to aerial ignition—a helicopter dropping ignition sources.”

But, like at the Jones Center, students get an understanding of the goals and objectives behind the burns. Aubrey says the class gets into the ecology of fires and fuels, weather readings, wind direction and smoke issues. It’s an intense week; Monday is a travel day, with the remainder reserved for safety briefings. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the students are on the ground, taking part in burning several thousand acres across the property.

 

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

During the week he spends with students, Aubrey says he does notice a change in some—they get what he calls the “fire bug.” The red card they obtain during the class opens up opportunities to go out west and work as a wildland firefighter. Or, if a student wanted to stay near home for the summer, they could connect with consulting land managers and offer to help with their burns. 

Either way, the classes create a baseline of experience that students can build upon.

Ben Hornsby (BSFR ’03, MS ’06), a forester with the U.S. Forest Service, works with Aubrey to provide the students’ red card certification. Hornsby says he wishes he had the same opportunity when he was a student. At the time, he knew he wanted to work with fire, and paid out-of-pocket to receive his certification after graduating. From there, he searched for opportunities to gain more experience and eventually landed a full-time job as a wildland firefighter.

A student kneels with a drip torch“I worked on a shot crew in Montana, as a senior firefighter out in Florida, then the opportunity came up and I started working where I am now, which is in the Athens Prescribed Fire Lab,” he says. He works with a team to move fire behavior models into the next generation, and also assists with operations at all national forests. Recently, his research has taken him to Osceola National Forest, Everglades National Park, Fort Stewart and Eglin Air Force Base.

"Current fire behavior prediction systems were developed out west, with kind of the worst-case scenario in mind. And the fuels are completely different in the west than they are in the east,” says Hornsby. “We prescribe fire here in the east as much as they get in the west. They’re mandated to use these models, but they don’t work in southern fuels and humid environments. So, we’re trying to revamp how the prediction systems work to incorporate different fuels and moisture levels, and then we can couple fire behavior with atmospheric interactions.”

But Hornsby adds that private landowners and non-governmental organizations play a large role in prescribed burns across the Southeast. He estimates between 6 million and 10 million acres of privately owned land is treated with prescribed fires every year.

As a result, leaving college with direct experience in prescribed fire is a key component to any future land manager’s toolbox.

“I think it’s imperative,” adds Hornsby. “If you think about it, whether you go into a professional fire job or not—whether you’re a forester, a consultant, a private landowner, a wildlife biologist—pretty much most landscapes in the Southeast are fire-dependent. So, if you’re trying to manage something to the best of its abilities and maintain high biodiversity and forest health, having a healthy forest is imperative.”

Porter, who recently graduated with fire experience, agrees.

Even with his prior experience with wildfires, Porter is glad to now have an understanding of fire’s effects on southeastern ecosystems.

“I look forward to fighting fires in Georgia, for a state agency,” says Porter, who recently began a job as a forest manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. In the position, he’ll be helping landowners determine the best options for managing their property, offering cost-share advice and connecting them with initiatives to plant trees. Along with the class at the Jones Center, Porter also took the Georgia Forestry Commission class to become a certified prescribed burner.

Bottom line, he adds: Get as much experience as you can.

Campbell, Clabo and Aubrey all agree that interest in prescribed fires among students is increasing. The science has evolved in the past generation, from a focus on preventing large-scale forest fires to understanding the benefits that come with a burn. There’s economics, logistics and public perception to consider, too. And while large-scale timber productions tend to rely more on herbicides or mechanical methods of controlling the understory, fire remains one of the most cost-efficient methods to maintain forests across the Southeast.

“But a landowner can have mixed objectives—they’re growing timber, but they’re also managing for wildlife, for example. They can be open to using fire,” says Campbell. “And it’s not just about managing for wildlife. Wiregrass, for example, needs fire to reproduce effectively, as well as pine regeneration. Not everyone is growing loblolly pine on tight spacing; there’s a lot of different types of species that it’s managed for.”

 

ALL FIRED UP

Back at the Jones Center earlier this spring, Melvin had a feeling the air would improve. With their gear on and tools loaded into the back of the truck, the group headed toward their first burn site. Then, gentle raindrops began to fall.

Students in the prescribed burn class stand for a group photoMelvin shook his head, undeterred. 

In just a few hours, the numbers swayed one way, then another. But the sprinkle was temporary, and after lunch the sun appeared.

It was go time.

Melvin went over the burn plan with the students before sparking the first flame. “We’ve got our area on a map—26 acres. We have our timeframe. We looked at the weather stats and got our permit. What are we going to affect? A bunch of pine trees,” says Melvin, who has been tracking South Georgia’s weather for decades. He knows its tricks. “OK, let’s go.”

Working in groups of four, the students took turns tracing burn lines through the stand of longleaf, carrying tools and drip torches and watching as the fire began to take hold. It was subdued—the air was still moist and the breeze had died down—but still enough to give them a sense of how a fire can move across a property.

“For me, this is an ideal setting,” says Justin Hill, a master’s student, reflecting on the day’s burn. “The classroom is good, and you need that aspect of it. And everyone who’s talked has done an exceptional job. I didn’t have much working knowledge on the different types of approaches you can do for burns, and the different results you can get. I’ve learned a lot in everything we’ve gone through.

In almost two decades, Melvin says the philosophy behind the experience remains the same: Give students the opportunity to learn about fire in a specific ecosystem.

What they walk away with goes well beyond a line on a resume.

“We bring university students here for a unique experience, to immerse them in the world and ecology of fire—in particular, in our part of the world,” Melvin adds. “This is something you can’t do anywhere else.”

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