Fire Training Exchanges Expand Controlled Burns
After days of introductions, training sessions and shared meals, the crew is ready and ideal weather conditions have arrived. Thirty or so fire practitioners from different locales have their assignments—some will use drip torches to ignite; some will make sure fire travels where it’s intended; some will watch weather or wet down edges of this controlled burn.
Women, men, novices and veterans and from all kinds of backgrounds: They’re wearing special clothing to ensure their safety—protective green pants and yellow shirts—some showing the experience of soot and others clean and crisp.
They’re here for a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), one of nearly two dozen that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partners organize across the country every year to build skills and encourage collaboration in controlled burning.
In the United States, it is critical that we safely increase the area treated with controlled burns. One of the main obstacles to conducting more burns is a shortage of qualified personnel.
Working with dozens of partners, and with funding through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, TNC has had a hand in organizing nearly 100 TREX trainings over the last decade, training hundreds of people every year.
TREX fire training exchanges highlights
Nearly 100 TREX trainings over the last decade have trained more than 3,000 people. These are a few of the 2019 trainings that highlight our innovative approach.
In 2019, the Cascadia TREX returned to a familiar landscape—the forests above the town of Roslyn. In 2017, the first Cascadia TREX came to Roslyn on the heels of the devastating Jolly Mountain Fire. The community has since seen a shift in perception on the benefits of controlled burning, and TREX has helped the local community prepare for when fire returns again.
One of the many benefits of the TREX model is its ability to test innovative ideas and seize opportunities as they arise. This year’s training blended the craft of nature journaling with a TREX event near the Klamath River in northwestern California. Now there’s talk about using art to engage community members about fire and forest health.
San Juan TREX
In a first-time collaboration with the San Juan National Forest, this TREX brought together 30 fire professionals from across the United States and local communities to southwestern Colorado. With fresh memories of last year’s 416 Fire—one of the largest in Colorado’s history—controlled burns during this TREX were aimed at reducing fuels near communities, improving wildlife habitat and promoting healthier forests.
New Mexico TREX
Participants in this Spanish-language TREX also got training in diversity and inclusion skills, and visited archaeological sites and discussed different ways that indigenous communities have used fire to manage lands. Over the years, the Spanish-language TREX conducted controlled burns on BLM and Forest Service lands, while exchanging experiences and techniques on everything from igniting fires to using drones and managing forest and grassland fuels.
The TREX program does what no one else is doing in fire management: It provides a cooperative burning model that meets the needs of diverse entities, including federal and state agencies, private landowners and contractors, tribes, academics, and international partners—while incorporating local values and issues to build the right kinds of capacity in the right places.
Every TREX organizer works to recruit participants representing a diversity of backgrounds, genders and experience levels. And every TREX meets on-the-ground needs, including burns focused on ecological, cultural and community safety objectives.
TREX offers career fire practitioners an opportunity to advance their professional qualifications in a wide range of roles, such as squad boss, engine boss, burn boss, public information officer and fire effects monitor. However, training is not just operational: TREX also include media training, exposure to concepts such as unconscious bias, equity and inclusion, and active-bystander practices. Participants use new tools, technology and theories related to geographic information systems, smoke modeling, fire ecology, laws and regulations, fire-related social science and more.
A core philosophy of TREX is that each participant—from the experienced burn boss to the entry-level firefighter—has something to learn and something to teach.
We talked to TREX organizers, burn bosses, fire practitioners and community members in several landscapes where we partnered on training exchanges this fall. Here are some locally-based highlights that help illustrate this unique model for building local capacity:
San Juan Fire Training Exchange - Pagosa Springs, Colorado
In a first-time collaboration with the San Juan National Forest, this TREX brought 30 fire professionals from across the United States and local communities from southwestern Colorado.
With fresh memories of last year’s 416 Fire—one of the largest in Colorado’s history—controlled burns during this TREX were aimed at reducing fuels near communities, improving wildlife habitat and promoting healthier forests. Some of the burns were conducted on the San Juan National Forest—the host and main funder of the TREX—and on lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Another main goal of the two-week-long San Juan TREX was to boost capacity, knowledge and skills for those conducting controlled burns in the area through both training and by building relationships among participating groups, says Emily Hohman, TNC’s Fire Learning Network manager, who is based in Colorado.
"This TREX is part of a long-term strategy to build a colaborative approach toward fire in this area," Hohman says. Participants and local ecology and forestry experts brought their knowledge back to their home regions in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico and Utah.
Cascadia Fire Training Exchange - Roslyn, Washington
The Cascadia TREX returned to a familiar landscape—the forests outside the town of Roslyn. In 2017, the first Cascadia TREX came to this area on the heels of the Jolly Mountain Fire, which forced evacuations. The fire spared the town, but residents were apprehensive about having more fires set right outside of town.
“Now it’s two years later and this is the third fall that we’ve burned on Roslyn Ridge,” says Kara Karboski, coordinator for Cascadia TREX and the Washington Prescribed Fire Council. “Since 2017, the view has shifted. They see smoke and they know we are burning. A Roslyn City Council member’s wife saw the smoke column this year and said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a good day to burn.’”
Karboski said the primary goals for Cascadia TREX are community safety and improving forest health. The vision is to create a buffer around the city of Roslyn to protect it from future wildfire. Controlled burns in the Roslyn Urban Forest are removing fuels that could contribute to a future wildfire.
The benefits of TREX go beyond reducing the risk of wildfire. TREX is a unique opportunity for participants to train across agencies, fire districts and other dividing lines so they can work together better when wildfire strikes.
“One of the biggest benefits of the TREX program is the various agencies working side by side and building those relationships for the future when wildfire does break out,” says Laura Osiadacz, a Kittitas County commissioner and a participant in the 2017 Cascadia TREX. “It is good to have that on-the-ground training before a wildfire event, to learn what techniques work best and how to prepare.”
Nature Journaling at the Klamath River Fire Training Exchange - Orleans, California
One of the many benefits of the TREX model is its ability to test innovative ideas and seize opportunities as they arise. That’s what Miriam Morrill had in mind when she suggested blending the craft of nature journaling with a TREX event near the Klamath River in northwestern California. Morrill is a fire mitigation and education specialist with BLM who also practices nature journaling.
“I saw this TREX as a wonderful bridge for people with nature journaling backgrounds, but little or no fire experience, to get some first-hand experience of fire on the landscape,” Morrill says.
In partnership with BLM, this pilot workshop attracted nearly two dozen top-notch nature journalers from across the country. Participant John Muir Laws summed up the craft: “The goal of nature journaling is not to create a portfolio of pretty pictures, but to develop your observation skills where you see, wonder and remember experiences and ideas.”
Participants took part in morning briefings held for the fire training and were assigned to fire units where they observed and sketched controlled burns, both past and in progress. And these journaling events are but one aspect of the multi-faceted, long-standing Klamath TREX.
Now that these nature journalers have a better understanding of “good fire,” there’s talk of integrating nature journaling into other controlled fire projects and using their art to engage community members about fire and forest health.
Spanish-Language Fire Training Exchange - Santa Fe, New Mexico
For nine years, this TREX has drawn Spanish-speaking fire practitioners from several U.S. states, as well as Andorra, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Portugal and Spain. Working and learning in the Santa Fe National Forest of New Mexico, this year’s two dozen participants came from a wide variety of organizations and shared their diverse experiences with wildfire and managing lands for fire.
José Luis Duce, an organizer of this training, has worked in fire management in his native Spain and is now a burn boss for controlled burns. “One of the highlights is to show the great job that individual people are doing in their countries, agencies, bases or crews,” Duce says. “We have an incredible variety of experiences, and it’s important to show how they are making small and big differences.”
Kicking off the two-week-long session, participants start with training on safety, communicating on the fireline, fire-ignition techniques and forest ecology.
As with most TREX events, the first few days of the Spanish-language TREX are focused on “building a solid team,” Duce says.
Over the years, Spanish-language TREX crews have conducted burns on BLM and Forest Service lands, while exchanging experiences and techniques on everything from igniting fires to using drones and managing forests and grasslands to reduce fuels.
Participants in this TREX also got training in diversity and inclusion skills and visited archaeological sites and discussed different ways that Indigenous communities have used fire to manage lands. In its ninth year, this TREX has not only made great strides in building experience and connections among diverse fire practitioners, it has directly improved the forests around Santa Fe, helping to advance the goals of the Rio Grande Water Fund.
Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX) are supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resilience and Fire Adapted Communities Together (PERFACT), a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior. This institution is an equal opportunity provider. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.