Setting a forest on fire is not what you would call a typical a spring break activity. Sixteen graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Georgia (UGA) did just that during a course in wildland fire science at Savannah River Ecology Lab at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The course, Wildland Fire, is the first of its kind at UGA and was developed and taught by U.S. Forest Service SRS research ecologist Joe O’Brien and forester Ben Hornsby, along with UGA Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Warnell School of Forestry faculty Doug Aubrey.
“Fire gets very little academic attention,” said O’Brien, Fire Science team leader with the SRS Center for Forest Disturbance in Athens, Georgia and an adjunct faculty member at UGA. “This class was the first step in trying to build a broader curriculum in wildland fire science at UGA.”
Before the students were given drip torches to light the prescribed burn, they received extensive wildland firefighter training led by Hornsby. Scott Goodrick, project leader and research meteorologist, and Dexter Strother, forestry technician, both with SRS, along with Kevin Hiers, wildland fire scientist with the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, also gave lectures on incident organization, safety, communications, weather, fire behavior, and fire suppression tactics.
The students also learned about the ecological benefits that fire can provide—from professors as well as each other. Each graduate student was required to give a one-hour presentation on a topic of their choice. Examples included the role of fire in global carbon cycling, the effects of the seasonal timing of burns, invasive species impacts on fire management, evolutionary adaptations to fire, and climate change and fire.
“This course is unique as it provides the students with an official Basic Wildland Firefighter certification which can help their marketability when they graduate and are looking for jobs,” said Hornsby. The students either received certification as a Fire Fighter Type 2 or Prescribed Fire Crewmember.
Hornsby worked with Mike Davis, Fire Management Officer, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, to develop a protocol that ensures the students’ training is captured in the Incident Qualifications and Certification System. This is invaluable, since they need this when applying for positions.
The students then worked closely with professionals at the Savannah River Site, mostly one-on-one, executing two prescribed fires on the site. The Savannah River Site Forest Service crew were outstanding partners who readily shared their expertise with the students.
“Wildland fire management is not only one of the most important tools for land managers across a wide range of ecosystems, it can also be one of the most complex and dangerous,” said Hornsby. “The ability to influence future land managers with a solid foundation of safety protocols and operational tactics is paramount.”
While this was the first course at UGA to offer students wildland firefighter certification and a chance to act as crewmembers on a Forest Service prescribed fire, it will not be the last.
“Many students expressed that this was their favorite class ever,” O’Brien said. “The students also left with a deep sense of how important, complex, and exciting wildland fire management is. Several students have expressed an interest in a career in wildland fire, either in research or operations. I look at these students as ambassadors in their respective fields for wildland fire science and management.”