It’s common now to see smoke in the air around Northern Arizona in the fall. Prescribed burns have become the norm for managing forests—especially around Flagstaff, which is a national model for forest management in an age of megafires. But nationwide, there’s a shortage of people qualified to do those burns, and funding is limited. The Nature Conservancy is trying to fill that gap by offering training for future “Burn Bosses.” KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.
Rebecca Dykes works for the Los Padres National Forest in California. She has a lot of experience putting out fires, but not so much with starting them. "Which is really exciting," she says. "This is actually my first time burning in grasslands."
Dykes came to Arizona for the Workshop on Ecological Burning, or WEB, held this year at Hart Prairie Preserve north of Flagstaff. She wants to take what she learns here back to her forest in California. "We have about 1.75 million acres of land that we manage, and we have one, maybe two, burn bosses, to run these kind of prescriptions," she says.
That shortfall in qualified burners is nationwide. In one research project, Courtney Schultz of Colorado State University interviewed land managers about the barriers to using prescribed fire. She expected them to talk about weather, smoke, and complicated regulations. But that’s not what they focused on.
Schultz says, "They would say it’s more like getting together enough people to create a burn team or to have the funding to pull off your burns, and that those were their biggest challenges."
In the last two decades the U.S. Forest Service’s workforce in the National Forest System has dropped by 45 percent. Prescribed burns are considered a valuable tool in land management, but their use in the Western US is flat or decreasing.
"There’s not a lot of incentive internally to get it done, and there’s a lot of reasons NOT to do it," Schultz says.
One big reason: people are too busy fighting wildfires. More than half of the US Forest Service’s budget now goes to fire suppression. Federal agencies need to divert people to fight catastrophic fires, leaving few qualified staff free to do prescribed burns—which would help prevent those big fires from happening.
Jeremy Bailey of The Nature Conservancy, says, "If you look at back 2018, 2017, 2016, really the whole last decade, most of our Southwestern firefighters have been in the Pacific Northwest or the Northern Rockies at this time of year. Now, this is a good time of year for us to be meeting our prescribed fire objectives, but a lot of our workforce is sent elsewhere."
The Nature Conservancy hosts the Workshop on Ecological Burning every few years. It brings together Nature Conservancy staff and state and federal employees from all over the country. Bailey says, "The workshop is focused on preparing future burn leaders—or burn bosses—and helping them improve their craft."
That’s done with practical training, like clearing fire breaks, paired with classroom lessons in fire ecology. Emily Hohman is one of the mentors. "We’ll also be teaching how to write a burn plan," she says. "That’s a lengthy document with 21 different sections that cover everything from the objectives of why we’re burning, all the way to a contingency plan in case something goes wrong, and medical plans in case we have an injury."
On Hart Prairie, a Nature Conservancy preserve on the west side of the San Francisco Peaks, the trainees have the chance to put their burn plan into action.
Mary Lata, fire ecologist for the Tonto National Forest, says, "They’re waiting for the wind right now, as far as figuring out exactly where they want to put fire on the ground." A voice over her radio interrupts: "Probability of ignition of thirty, three-zero." Lata explains, "That means if there is a spark that lands on the ground there’s a thirty percent chance that it would start up and running."
Lata says Hart Prairie used to burn naturally every decade or so, keeping the grasslands open and healthy. But now little trees are sprouting up in the grass. "The preserve manager could not remember the last time this area burned," she says.
Trainees in the workshop spray water down on a perimeter line and light a test fire with a drip torch. Someone calls over the radio: "Test fire is a go!" Flames crackle through the brittle grass, leaving black char behind. Lata says in the spring, new, healthy growth will spring up from these ashes.