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Flagstaff Prescribed Fire Training Exchange aims to proliferate proactive forest management

Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Participants in the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange took part in a 72-acre prescribed burn on Observatory Mesa on Nov. 2, 2021.

Dozens of fire professionals from across the West recently gathered on Observatory Mesa in Flagstaff to conduct a 70-acre prescribed burn. It was part of the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, a first-of-its-kind program to disseminate fire management knowledge across multiple agencies and states. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius was there and spoke to City of Flagstaff Forest Health Supervisor Neil Chapman about the decades-long effort to manage local forests and reduce the dangers of catastrophic wildfire.

Neil Chapman: Being able to leverage the years of work the Flagstaff community has put for thinning and burning and provide training opportunities for folks from around the West who are sometimes suffering similar events. Catastrophic fires are hitting our communities all over. So, being able to bring them out there for learning both about our prescribed fire implementation and building those skills on the ground, but also learning from us and our partners about how the greater Flagstaff area has worked so hard for over 20 years as a big collaborative community to reduce these impacts across the landscape.

Ryan Heinsius: I think us here in Flagstaff, we probably take prescribed fire for granted. The Flagstaff area, whether it’s the forest of the city or whatever public agencies, have been so proactive for so many years and we just – maybe I just assumed that goes on everywhere in the Mountain West. But that’s not necessarily the case, right?

NC: No, it’s not the case but it’s growing. Flagstaff’s been on a pretty positive trajectory for over 20 years when it comes to restoring our forests. There’s a lot of communities that just started down that path. So some of the municipal fire departments that we have here that are working on building their internal prescribed fire qualifications include the Rapid City Fire Department in South Dakota, Grand Lake Fire Department, and the Red, White and Blue Fire District in Colorado. Those folks really want to get on the same trajectory that we’re on. We’re farther down the road and we’ve got some more lessons learned to share with these folks.

RH: Large-scale restoration has been slow to really materialize. It’s a huge, daunting, difficult, massive undertaking. Is there a hope that this could somehow expedite that process?

NC: These training exchanges are really helping transform an entire workforce. Our fire management workforce is largely based on suppressing wildfires, and we need to be transitioning towards implementing prescribed fires in as fast and aggressive a way as possible. And so, these training exchanges when you look at them nationally, and to some degree internationally, are really helping build that workforce that we need to help light fires and be fire lighters, not just firefighters.

RH: How has climate change factored into all this? Are there different ways that you’re conducting prescribed burns? Are there different ways you’re teaching how to conduct prescribed burns based on a changing climate and that whole process accelerating?

NC: What we’re seeing with some of our climate is just more variability. So, our prescribed fire windows are less predictable, and so building these skills for folks to be able to take advantage of those windows when they open is very important. Even look at our fall, it’s been a fairly wet fall, so being able to be flexible and being able to take advantage when we are in prescription is the name of the game these days. We can’t just rubber stamp a few weeks every season that we expect this to sort of work. So building these partnerships where our prescribed fire workforce is available to each other as possible. We can’t just say we have firefighters on staff, you know, April through October and that’s the end of the program. We need to have folks much more available year-round these days to take advantage of prescribed fire opportunities.

RH: Are you incorporating Indigenous perspectives into fire.

NC: Absolutely. As part of this Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, we went up to the Grand Canyon National Park and met with resource advisor Jason Nez, and he was talking in detail about how he envisions fire and cultural resources working together to protect those resources. But also, as we learn more about our landscape, it’s very important that we communicate that our forest has evolved with both natural ignitions and with cultural burning for over 10,000 years. So when we talk about this group today and a bunch of folks getting together to ignite prescribed fires on our landscape, that’s been happening for a long time. And so, recognizing the impact of Indigenous burning practices and cultural burning efforts is very important to recognize how we move our programs forward. Our forest has evolved with people and fire for thousands of years and we want to maintain that.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.