Field Training Fires Up Forestry Students - Humboldt State Now

Field Training Fires Up Forestry Students

The group of HSU Forestry students were standing close enough to the flames to hear the crackling and feel the heat.

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Prescribed—or controlled burning—is an important forest and rangeland management tool.

But they weren’t fighting the fire. They were participating in a controlled burn as part of The Nature Conservancy’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, a weeklong program in Nebraska that gives experienced and aspiring professionals broad exposure to the world of fire.

The recent trip was part of Forestry Professor Jeffrey Kane’s Wildland Fire Use class, an experiential course that provides hands-on training in prescribed—or controlled burning—an important forest and rangeland management tool.

“I try to bring in a new perspective for them through this class,” says Kane, who began offering it this semester to meet growing demand. HSU offers one the largest fire management programs in the nation, with 60 students currently enrolled.

Kane’s class joined firefighters, ecologists, scientists and students from U.C. Berkeley, Northern Arizona University and schools around the country for the annual program, which combines classroom lessons in various aspects of fire with hands-on training in controlled burning.

Although many of the students had previous firefighting experience, the program provided numerous networking opportunities—with private contractors, smokejumpers and other students—and a chance to explore traditional and non-traditional fire careers in finance and mapping.

“It was really valuable, not just for first time burners but students like myself who have experience fighting fire,” says Anthony Agpaoa (’14, Forestry), who works as a seasonal fire fighter in California. “It was the cheapest Spring Break I could have spent my money on and I got to travel halfway across the country.”

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In the Niobrara grasslands, controlled burning is used to mitigate the spread of invasive Eastern red cedar and restore the region’s natural biodiversity.

The training took place on a combination of private and public land and on the Niobrara Valley Preserve, 56,000 acres of pine canyons, grasslands and prairies in Nebraska’s Great Plains.

In addition to getting a crash course in all-things fire—from the basics of burning to lessons learned from previous fires gone wrong—students got hands-on experience preparing hose lays, laying wet lines and managing an actual burning operation over several thousand acres.

“A lot of employed fire fighters don’t get to experience a prescribed burn in that environment,” says Josh Tracy (’14, Forestry), who previously worked for the Forest Service in Washington state and Lassen National Forest. “That hands-on approach is uniquely exceptional to Humboldt State.”

Students also had an opportunity to witness the ecological benefits of prescribed fire up-close. In the Niobrara grasslands, controlled burning is used to mitigate the spread of invasive Eastern red cedar and restore the region’s native biodiversity. It is also used to increase forage quality for grazing animals.

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Forestry professor Jeffrey Kane’s Wildland Fire Use class in Nebraska.

“There’s this misconception that fire is a bad thing when it’s really a natural process and a natural part of California,” says Nick Zeibig-Kichas (’14, Forestry), who got to see the benefits of controlled burning first hand. “Plant species are adapted to it and over the past 100 years, we’ve created a disturbance by removing the natural disturbance.”

Some of the social and economic barriers to controlled burning include cost, smoke, homeowner resistance and misinformation. For others, it’s about moving past negative perceptions.

“I always viewed fire as a bad thing,” says Colin Campbell (’14, Forestry) who came to HSU from Groveland, Calif., a small town outside of Yosemite National Park that was nearly destroyed by the Rim Fire in 2013. “That’s the way people where I’m from looked at it. But once I started looking at fire, I realized it really wasn’t the case,” Campbell says. “When you use fire right, it can be a really powerful tool. Now, I’m on a mission to share that.”

Students will use the lessons they learned at the training to create their own prescribed burn plans for HSU’s L.W. Schatz Demonstration Tree Farm in Maple Creek, which provides hands-on learning in forest management.