Exchange Wraps Up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve
Despite weather challenges, participants met their goals for learning and burning at the 2013 Fire Training Exchange.
Johnstown, NE | March 26, 2013
It started with snow, it ended with snow, and in between crews burned 4,200 acres of forest and grasslands along the Niobrara River.
Arriving late at night on March 9th - in the middle of a blizzard - University of Idaho students were met by a search party that was patrolling the roads looking for wayward firefighters who may have become stuck in snowdrifts where there was no cell phone coverage and seldom vehicle traffic. While the Idaho students fared fine, those from New Mexico Highlands University on the southerly route had to leave their car in Johnstown and hitch a ride to the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Despite this snowy start, organizers and participants were eager to begin a training exchange designed to deliver thousands of acres of controlled burning while offering valuable experience to professional wildland fire practitioners and students from five universities.
The Conservancy, the Fire Learning Network, Firestorm, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Niobrara Council, Niobrara Prescribed Fire Association, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Forest Service, Prescription Pyro LLC, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contributed equipment, money, and expertise to this effort.
For the past five years federal, state and private organizations have joined forces to build a new kind of fire training; one where every participant is both student and teacher. “Even the most experienced of firefighters still has much to learn. This year, one thing we learned was that despite the winter weather, the sun and wind would soon clear off the snow and allow for vegetation to burn,” said Jeremy Bailey, Associate Director of The Nature Conservancy’s fire training program.
This area along the Niobrara River just east of Valentine suffered large wildfires in July of 2012, leaving neighbors and communities reeling from the blackened acres, the loss of forage for their animals, and loss of homes. Organizers wondered if the exchange should be held. “We decided the time was right and it could be done safely. Burning next to a burned area can provide a great anchor point and really limit the potential for escape,” said Bailey.
In the two weeks of training, 65 participants worked long days without breaks, fought freezing temperatures and strong winds, drought conditions in the forests and heavily grazed pastures that only carried fire during the best of conditions. They got vehicles stuck, broke equipment, went hungry and got sick. Despite these challenges, the resilient firefighters and fire practitioners supported and encouraged each other and during many of the days were able to apply “good fire”.
A good fire is one which meets pre-planned objectives to either restore or maintain natural areas that have a historic relationship with fire (fire adapted ecosystems). Members from the local community, including volunteer firefighters, joined in and watched from safe vantage points. Others had completed training that allowed them to integrate fully with these professional wildland firefighters.
“We are very proud to be a part of this network. It has increased our crew’s passion for safety and quality to their work ethic. As always, we walk away with great experiences, learning and teaching,” said Robert Harrold of Prescription Pyro, a custom burning business based in Broken Bow.
After two weeks of hard work, a celebratory moment came when the crews had lit a ridge just above the Niobrara River. A snake of fire 6 miles long glowed well into the night as prairie fire moved from the grass to dry pines and fire was restored to its natural place.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org