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Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences

It was at the first Tall Timbers conference that the words 'fire' and 'ecology' were put together as Fire Ecology for the first time.

It was at the first Tall Timbers conference that the words ‘fire’ and ‘ecology’ were put together as Fire Ecology for the first time.

From inception, the founders of Tall Timbers had a goal to share research information about fire. “Tall Timbers was really set up to prove that burning had a useful place” – Ed Komarek (in Rubanowice 1994). Thus the basis for organization of conferences was an educational enterprise to stimulate scientific research about fire (Komarek 1973). A key focus of those early conferences was to educate conservation groups, the public at large, and the educational leaders about the benefits of prescribed fire (Komarek 1962). “From the beginning this was an educational endeavor, worldwide in scope, which sought, as was stated in the first fire conference,…to provide a common meeting ground where the results of research and experimentation may provide a more intelligent course to follow regarding the use of fire in the production of forest, grassland, and wildlife, not only for the benefit of those professionally or privately engaged in land management but for the enlightenment of conservation groups whose energies have so frequently been wasted in the crossfire of misleading and opinionated information.” (Komarek 1991).

E.V. Komarek, TTRS Executive Secretary 1958-1979, and Conference Chairman of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences #1-15 1955-1962.

E.V. Komarek, TTRS Executive Secretary 1958-1979, and Conference Chairman of the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences #1-15 1955-1962.

Ed Komarek, as the first Executive Secretary of Tall Timbers, soon developed a reputation for promotion of prescribed fire among the scientific community. He organized the first Fire Ecology Conference in 1962 to bring attention to this “most neglected ecological subject.” It was at this conference that for the first time the words fire and ecology would be put together as Fire Ecology. At the beginning it was determined that the conference proceedings would not be peer-reviewed even in the face of intense criticism from the academics at Florida State University, a co-sponsor of the first fire conference, and from the Universities of Georgia and Florida (Komarek 1962, Rubanowice 1994). Herbert L. Stoddard, Sr. had a brush with censorship efforts by those funding his research on quail decades before. The funding agency disagreed with Stoddard’s positive research findings about the benefits of fire in the pinelands of the south and sought to suppress publication of his work. Also personal experiences of academics and other scientists working with fire illustrated firsthand that the scientific community had hardly embraced the idea of fire as a natural disturbance component in ecosystems. Peer-review in some cases, from reviewers and editors holding the prevailing viewpoint that fire was destructive, had become a form of censorship. The conference and its proceedings therefore would not censor free scientific thought and inquiry.

Ed & Betty Komarek visiting Dr. Winston Trollope in South Africa – 1970. this trip precipitated the 11th Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference – Fire in Africa.

Ed & Betty Komarek visiting Dr. Winston Trollope in South Africa – 1970. this trip precipitated the 11th Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference – Fire in Africa.

Ed Komarek visiting Germany – 1974.

Ed Komarek visiting Germany – 1974.

Ed and Betty Komarek visiting Portugal – 1975.

Ed and Betty Komarek visiting Portugal – 1975.

During the first conferences it became abundantly clear “that fire as an ecological fact was world-wide in scope…” (Tall Timbers Research Station 1973). These conferences brought together researchers from a variety of disciplines from around the world and indeed provided considerable impetus that ultimately precipitated the wide recognition of the science of Fire Ecology. Ed presented numerous papers with missionary zeal at these conferences; some were foundational in nature and instant classics.
These fire conferences succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The demand for the freely available conference proceedings was exceptional, necessitating multiple printings in some cases. The 14th Proceedings had 6,500 copies printed. By 1977 nearly all would be out of print. (Komarek 1977).

The fire conferences were designed to appeal to the manager, the lay person, and the public as well as researchers. Ed had a strong desire to get the conference proceedings into the hands of the public. His view was that they should not be as technical as a scientific journal, yet not as shallow as a typical magazine article. The writing in the proceedings was to strike a middle ground and they were to be distributed free to all who requested. Roy Komarek was the designated editor of these proceedings. The Proceedings along with other Tall Timbers publications were sent to 183 libraries in 47 countries on 5 continents in addition to 374 libraries in the United States (Komarek 1973, 1975b).

Conferences were generally held in Tallahassee but at varying intervals when it was felt that the conferences could “stimulate fire ecology” they were moved around a bit (Komarek 1977). The themes for some conferences reflected places where Ed and Betty had traveled to learn about the role of fire or were invited to provide education about fire to scientists, land managers of government agencies of other countries. Some early conferences were held in California, Montana, Texas, Oregon and New Brunswick, Canada aside from Tallahassee. By the 15th conference, Ed believed that they had accomplished their objectives therefore the Fire Ecology conferences were discontinued. The 1974 Conference was the last Fire Ecology Conference because of the proliferation of fire conferences and the general recognition and research attention that fire was receiving from the scientific community (Komarek 1977). The last such conference Ed organized and hosted in this series was a Tall Timbers Ecology and Management Conference in 1979, noticeably bereft of the word fire. The thought was that Tall Timbers would begin focusing on the broader ecological concept of disturbance – both natural and anthropogenic.

Field trip to TNC's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma to learn about the fire-grazing interaction at the 23rd Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference.

Field trip to TNC’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in
Oklahoma to learn about the fire-grazing interaction
at the 23rd Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference.

After more than a decade hiatus, in 1989, the Fire Ecology Conferences were revived. Several events precipitated the resumption. In 1986, The Nature Conservancy initiated a fire ecology program in its Southeast Region and Tall Timbers, because of its history in fire ecology, was chosen as the place to locate this program. The wildfire season during 1986-87 was devastating; numerous wildfires, several of which were large, occurred in the Southeast. In 1988, wildfires in Yellowstone National Park and other large catastrophic fires in the Western U.S., precipitated a virtual eruption in public debate about fire and fire management policy in the media. Subsequently, the Nature Conservancy partnered with Tall Timbers to co-sponsor this well attended conference in Tallahassee (Hermann et al. 1991). The timing was right to continue the educational endeavor for fire, albeit on a different level.

Beginning with the 1989 conference, the Proceedings have been peer-reviewed and published at a nominal cost. All conference proceedings have been reprinted and are now in electronic format (PDF) and available on CD-ROM as well as a conventional hard copy. The last conference, the 24th, was held in 2009 in Tallahassee. (See list of Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences #1-24).

Sources

Hermann, S.M., J.L. Landers, and R. L. Myers. 1991. Preface. Proc. Tall Timbers Fire Ecol. Conf. No. 17.

Komarek, Sr., E. V. 1962. The use of fire: an historical background. Proc. Tall Timbers Fire Ecol. Conf. No. 1.

Komarek, Sr., E.V. 1973. Comment on the history of controlled burning in the southern United States. in Proceedings of the 17th Annual Arizona Watershed Symposium. Arizona Water Commission, Phoenix, Arizona.

Komarek, Sr., E.V. 1977. The role of the Tall Timbers Research Station in the development of the study of fire ecology. Pages 488-498 in Proceedings of the Symposium on the Environmental Consequences of Fire and Fuel management in Mediterranean Ecosystems. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report WO-3. Washington, D.C.

Komarek, R. 1962. Preface. Proc. Tall Timbers Fire Ecol. Conf. No.1.

Komarek, R. 1991. About the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conferences. Proc. Tall Timbers Fire Ecol. Conf. No. 17:xi. (Written by author, September 1988)

Rubanowice, R.J. 1994. A sense of place in southern Georgia: Birdsong Plantation, Farm and Nature Center. South Georgia Historical Consortium, Tallahassee, FL.

Tall Timbers Research Station. 1973. Forward. in Biswell, H.H., H.R. Kallander, R. Komarek, R.J. Vogl, and H. Weaver, (eds.). Ponderosa Fire Management: A task force evaluation of controlled burning in Ponderosa pine forest of central Arizona. Misc. Publ. Tall Timbers Res. Sta. No. 2