Expediting experience for the next generation of burn practitioners

The art of prescribed fire is a trade honed through years of apprenticeship, trial, error, and restless nights. Appreciating the way fire behaves when titi is blooming, seeing the peril of a puff of smoke in the late afternoon after firing is complete, and recognizing the increased risk of people getting hurt when the sun goes down, all come from years of experience. I am fortunate to be surrounded by many skilled burn practitioners who, because of their experience, are considered “fire artisans.” However, as I look around, I also see gray hair, creased skin around eyes, and a few extra pounds here and there. Multiple days of burning now require multiple days of physical recovery. The cruel irony of prescribed fire implementation is that you need an older person’s experience in a younger person’s body.

In order to expedite expertise of the next cohort of prescribed burners, Tall Timbers Private Lands Fire Initiative, with the guidance of the Tall Timbers Fire Science and Applications training cadre, has launched two pilot projects.

Bringing Prescribed Fire Training to Alabama Universities

Funded through both Natural Resources Conservation Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants, Dr. John Kush, retired Forestry faculty from Auburn University, was hired in 2020 by Tall Timbers to oversee an innovative, collaborative project. This project brings together faculty and students to expand the discussion of prescribed burning in central Alabama to include historically black colleges and universities. He has assisted in injecting more discussion of prescribed fire into the classroom at colleges including the University of West Alabama and Auburn University–Montgomery.

Central Alabama University Students practice getting into fire shelters at Auburn University-Montgomery Training. Photo by John McGuire

Balsie Butler with the Alabama Forestry Commission, explaining work force opportunities for the State with undergraduates from Central Alabama Universities during a training session at Auburn University-Montgomery. Photo by John McGuire

In this short time, nearly 200 students attended lectures and discussions in fall 2021, involving the role of fire in our native ecosystems. With the assistance of Zach Prusak, Tall Timbers Wildland Fire Training Specialist, and Kevin Carter from Attack-One Fire Management, Dr. Kush has also helped over 30 students from six universities achieve the training necessary to allow them to volunteer and apprentice with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and Alabama Forestry Commission. Several students will also volunteer with the Tall Timbers Private Lands Burn Team managed by Jeremiah Cates. Future work will include more integration of fire lectures in the classroom, and more coordination and collaboration between colleges and universities in the Longleaf Legacy Landscape.

Tall Timbers Burn Team Coordinator Jeremiah Cates, instructs military and first responder veterans on fire gear at Camp ASCCA, Jackon’s Gap, Alabama. Photo by John McGuire

Engaging Veterans in Prescribed Fire Workforce Development

U.S. Army Veteran, shadowed the Tall Timbers Burn Team for two days following her training to become a certified burn manager in Alabama. Photo by John McGuire

The second project involves training our nation’s warriors as they transition from active duty to civilian life. In February 2022, Major Lee Stuckey, USMC retired and Tall Timbers’ coordinator for the new Central Alabama Prescribed Burn Association, facilitated training for over 35 veterans and first responders in Jackson’s Gap, Alabama, along with the support of several key partners including the Alabama Association of RC&D Councils, Alabama Extension, AHERO, Attack-One Fire Management, The Wildlife Group, and Working Lands for Wildlife. Not only did this training create a solid group of certified burn managers (25 from Alabama), it brought together a cohort who will continue to work together on natural resource management in the future.

Multiple trainees mentioned that the style of interaction Major Stuckey facilitated was both emotionally transformative and eye opening about fields of fire and land management. One trainee worked with Jeremiah Cates for two days following the training; she will now return to Tennessee as a force to be reckoned with. Like the university students previously mentioned, several participants from the veteran training will volunteer with the Tall Timbers Private Lands Burn Team.

Old burners may fade away, but by implementing this aggressive education/apprenticeship program, a new cohort of future burn managers will be available to help tackle the demand for prescribed fire on private lands and fulfill Tall Timbers’ mission across the Longleaf Legacy Landscape and more broadly.


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