David Printiss stands on the Sycan Marsh Preserve as smoke from the Bootleg Fire billows in the background.
One Conservancy Mission David Printiss was called in from North Florida to help fight the Bootleg Fire at Sycan Marsh Preserve in Oregon. © TNC

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Effective Forest Management Saves Research Station from Oregon’s Bootleg Fire

TNC Florida’s David Printiss and Bradley Keegan assist with firefighting efforts.

Katie Sauerbrey and David Printiss at the Bootleg Fire in Oregon
David and Katie Taking a quick break on the firelines. © David Printiss/TNC

Atop a knob in the forest clearing, engine boss David Printiss takes a quick break from the firelines on Oregon’s Sycan Marsh Preserve to chat with Oregon fire manager and burn boss Katie Sauerbrey. Acrid smoke fills the air and the heat from the nearby blazes rises up from the forest floor. Suddenly the ground begins to tremble, as a massive 747 aircraft thunders up over the wildfire, just 300 feet above the tree tops, powers over the ridge, and releases thousands of gallons of flame retardant onto the head of the wildfire below. 

The Bootleg fire is the largest thus far in a destructive fire season plaguing the western United States. Started by a lightning strike on July 6, 2021, it burned over 400,000 acres of southeastern Oregon over 40 days. Spurred by months of drought and a blistering heat wave, the flames of the Bootleg Fire threatened to consume Sycan Marsh Preserve’s research station, support buildings and field equipment. A call for help went out to TNC’s expert fire managers all over the country to assist with the rescue mission. North Florida program manager and 20-year fire practitioner David Printiss heeded the call from Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. The next day he was on a flight to Oregon, along with land conservation steward Bradley Keegan.

Their mission was clear: protecting the research station at Sycan Marsh Preserve from the Bootleg fire threatening the preserve. Ironically, the focus of the research conducted by TNC in Oregon at this remote preserve is the study of forest fuels management, to help inform how wildfires will behave and make forests and other landscapes in Oregon and around the world healthier and more resilient in the face of increasing wildfire threats. The research station utilizes smoke monitors, drones, lasers and other high-tech equipment to collect data.  

Main preserve building at Sycan Marsh Preserve
Sycan Marsh Research Station The Bootleg Fire came dangerously close to the research station. © David Printiss/TNC

Years of careful prescribed fire application and timber thinning saved the research station from being consumed by the fire. As it approached the preserve the flames lessened intensity and the fire slowed down. It went from crowning in the tree canopy to burning much less intensely on the ground. The research station was unharmed, as the fire moved around it.  

In addition to modern forest management practices, land stewardship at the preserve has also been informed by the knowledge developed over centuries by Indigenous peoples. The Sycan Marsh Preserve is an historic site for the Klamath Tribes, who have a long history and culture tied to fire in the region. Their involvement and partnership allow TNC to help create a shared future of healthy lands, waters, and communities for all.

“Bringing together wildland fire professionals from all over the country to help with this mission was a true One Conservancy effort,” said Printiss. Collaboration is the key, from fire professionals working together toward a common cause, to partnering with communities toward the common goal to protect and steward the lands for the benefit of people and nature into the future.  

Flames from the Bootleg Fire threaten Sycan Marsh Preserve.
Bootleg Fire Flames rise above a grassy meadow in the Sycan Marsh Preserve. © Katie Sauerbrey/TNC
Firefighters at work on the Bootleg Fire at Sycan Marsh Preserve.
Firefighters in Action TNC fire professionals from across the U.S. including the Global Director of Fire Management Blane Heumann (pictured here) working together in a One Conservancy effort. © David Printiss/TNC
Bootleg Fire Flames rise above a grassy meadow in the Sycan Marsh Preserve. © Katie Sauerbrey/TNC
Firefighters in Action TNC fire professionals from across the U.S. including the Global Director of Fire Management Blane Heumann (pictured here) working together in a One Conservancy effort. © David Printiss/TNC

The lesson of the effects of long-term fire suppression is not lost on Printiss, “in Florida we are lucky that the fire culture of those that came before us was never lost. The challenge in the western U.S. is extremely complex and will take decades to solve—it is a sobering reminder that we have to keep our fires burning here at home.” TNC’s North Florida Program recently hit a new record with 100,000 acres of prescribed fire assistance to partners. 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.