Taking students to the fireline

Fire Tigers of Clemson

three people stand next to a prescribed fire
Mentorship is a major part of the program – every student has the opportunity to spend time with experienced fire managers. USDA Forest Service photo by Helen Mohr.

Over 50 students at Clemson University have participated in the Fire Tigers Program.

The program starts with a week of classes. Students who like the classes can keep going – they can take saw and pump classes and help conduct prescribed fires on nearby national forests. Some students work on wildfires and become certified wildland firefighters.

“From start to finish, we view this as a huge learning experience for each individual, and of course we hope they’ll take it to a career in managing the land,” says Helen Mohr, USDA Forest Service researcher and director of the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists (CAFMS).

Mohr and Wes Bentley – the zone fire management officer for the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina – created the Fire Tigers Program together.

“We had a dream about putting this crew together for a long time,” says Mohr.

In 2016, funding from the Southern Region of the Forest Service and CAFMS got the program started. And in 2019, a grant from the Washington Office of the Forest Service provided flame-resistant Nomex uniforms, radios, and travel funding.

The Fire Tigers Program is highly collaborative. “We couldn’t do it without the fire staff on the Andrew Pickens Ranger District. The South Carolina Dispatch Center does the bulk of the paper processing. It’s a heavy lift, and we’re so indebted to SC dispatch for helping with the paperwork,” says Mohr.

people standing together
Each May, a new cohort of Fire Tigers begins with a week-long class. USDA Forest Service photo by Gregg Chapman.

Students who participate in the Fire Tigers Program are usually freshmen or sophomores and are often studying forestry or wildlife biology.

One of the program’s main goals is teaching students how to make land management decisions based on sound science.

“The reciprocal relationship between science and management is key,” says Mohr. “As my mentor Tom Waldrop says, ‘you can’t do good fire research unless you have been on a fire.’”

Mohr’s work shows this. In addition to leading the science exchange network at CAFMS, Mohr publishes academic research as well as tools for land managers who want to use prescribed fire. A recent photo guide, for example, tallies fuel loads in the Southern Appalachians. Adam Coates of Virginia Tech was the lead author of that publication.

two people stand by a truck
Helen Mohr and Wes Bentley co-created the program in 2016. USDA Forest Service photo by Benji Mosley.

Nearly four decades of fire research has taken place on the Andrew Pickens Ranger District. Mohr’s office on Clemson is just minutes away from the national forest.

“The Sumter National Forest is such a great host,” says Mohr. “They make sure researchers have everything we need. The process works so well, very seamless.”

The close partnership, nearby location, and support from CAFMS is part of why the Fire Tigers Program has been so successful. Other universities such as Appalachian State University in North Carolina and the University of Florida hope to create similar programs.

“Many of the students have worked summer jobs out West on hand crews and engines,” says Mohr. “Currently, ten graduates are working in land management of some sort that involves the use of fire. Two are currently finishing up masters degrees in fire science.”

Mohr, Bentley, and others on the Sumter National Forest, at Clemson University, the Southern Research Station, and with the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers were recognized with a 2021 Regional Forester’s Honor Award.

Watch a video about the Fire Tigers Program.

For more information, email Helen Mohr at helen.mohr@usda.gov.

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