A dozen wildland fire workers engage in a trust-building exercise by carrying a man over their heads.
BUILDING TRUST Participants in a Spanish-language fire learning exchange in New Mexico in 2019 pass a crew member in a trust-building exercise. © José Luis Duce

Land & Water Stories

Training Exchanges Support Fire Practitioners, Expand Controlled Burns

After days of introductions, training sessions and shared meals, the group is ready, and ideal weather conditions have arrived. Thirty or so fire practitioners—diverse in origin, orientation and experience—have their assignments.

Wearing special protective clothes and carrying the tools of the trade, they work in teams. Some use drip torches to light fire; some make sure fire travels where it’s intended. Some measure and watch the weather. Others wet down the edges of the controlled burn—a low-intensity, beneficial wildland fire set and managed under specific conditions by trained practitioners.

The scene might not be familiar for many of us, but it’s typical for participants in any of the dozen or two Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) and Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) events The Nature Conservancy and partners organize across the country every year to build skills and encourage collaboration in controlled burning.

Three women work on a chainsaw over a table outside during a TREX fire training session in North Carolina.
SHARPENING SKILLS During a skills session at the spring 2023 WTREX in North Carolina, participants learn about chainsaw maintenance. © Holly Tuckett

Why We Burn

Many of the landscapes across North America are adapted to fire—they require fire. So, it is critical that we safely and strategically increase the use of controlled burns, for the health of these landscapes, and to improve community safety by better managing the fuels on which severe wildfires feed. These are critical elements of why TNC works with fire.

One of the main obstacles to conducting more burns is a shortage of trained fire practitioners. That’s where TREX and WTREX come in—to provide training, build relationships, share knowledge, and increase local communities’ sense of positive ownership of wildland fire. By early 2024, TNC and dozens of partners had organized more than 150 TREX events in the United States, Canada, Portugal, South Africa and Spain providing training and hands-on experience to more than 4,300 people and putting more than 175,000 acres of beneficial fire on the ground.

Several men and women in wildland firefighter garb stand in a circle, some taking notes, during their morning pre-fire briefing.
MORNING BRIEFING Scenes from a pre-burn briefing during the WTREX in Virginia in 2022. Briefings like these focus on such thing as burn team assignments, burn specifics and objectives. © Daniel White/TNC

Building a Broader Workforce

Supported with funding through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, these trainings do what no one else is doing in fire management: They provide a cooperative burning model that meets the diverse needs of 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 training organizer works to recruit participants representing a diversity of backgrounds and experience levels. And every training event meets local on-the-ground needs, including burns focused on ecological, cultural and community safety objectives.

ROSLYN, WA: MEETING THE CHALLENGE OF WILDFIRES "It's been a traumatic summer, but more than that I don't like the idea of another Jolly Mountain Fire at my doorstep."
A wildland fire crew of four men measure fuels of grass and sticks in a 1-meter square near San Juan, Colorado.
CHECKING FUELS Participants in a fire training exchange in Roslyn, Washington, learn to measure fuels. © Kara Karboski

Typically lasting anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, these training events offer career fire practitioners opportunities 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. Increasingly, the events offer non-agency practitioners—from tribal members and students to landowners and community members—the skills, experience and connections they need to help build a sustainable fire future.

And training is not just operational. TREX and WTREX also include media training, and 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. Participants also build relationships that span cultures, organizations and careers.

Infographic showing the increase in TREX training sessions 2008-2023.
TREX 2008-2024 By the numbers, all TREX and WTREX in the United States from 2008-2023. WTREX was introduced in 2016.

Women in Fire

While WTREX welcomes all genders, it reframes the TREX model to focus on women and other underrepresented fire practitioners, who tend to experience feelings of isolation and are often subject to discrimination and harassment. Despite the need for new approaches and practitioners, the dominant fire management system has tended to be dismissive of women’s perspectives and strengths, and WTREX provides a forum to make that shift.

Led by women fire practitioners, the first WTREX was held in 2016. Since that time, women have made up 90% of WTREX participants, and 30% of TREX participants overall. In fall 2022, practitioners at the Santa Barbara TREX—the first TREX in Southern California—conducted a controlled burn on the University of California’s Sedgwick Reserve. TREX entered its 15th year in 2023. 

Participants of a fire training exchange conduct a controlled burn in the hills of Southern California.
A DURABLE MODEL In fall 2022, practitioners at the Santa Barbara TREX—the first TREX in Southern California—conducted a controlled burn on the University of California’s Sedgwick Reserve. © Heather Gately/TNC

In fall 2022, practitioners at the Santa Barbara TREX—the first TREX in Southern California—conducted a controlled burn on the University of California’s Sedgwick Reserve. TREX enters its 15th year in 2023.

TREX and WTREX Are Evolving

TREX and WTREX are spreading geographically. TREX have been hosted in Spain and Portugal, and in 2022, the U.S. Northeast—and Canada—saw their first TREX events, in Maine and Saskatchewan, respectively. Increasingly, practitioners not directly associated with TNC are adapting and using these training models, too. The first international WTREX events, in 2023 in South Africa and Canada, are examples of this expansion.

These trainings are also being adapted to meet specific local needs. For example, in fall 2022, the first WTREX hosted by and focused on Indigenous fire practitioners was held in Karuk Ancestral Territory in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California.

The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated new approaches. Before the pandemic, the trainings relied heavily on non-local practitioners traveling to them. During the pandemic, organizers looked to local participants to ease logistical complications—driving an important development that reflects the reality that wildland fire is a very local phenomenon, and local community engagement with it is a key element of changing how we collectively think about and manage fire.

A page from nature journaler John Muir Laws, showing elements of a controlled burn.
PAGES FROM A BURN A page from nature journaler John Muir Laws' sketch book showing a controlled burn at a TREX in 2019 in Orleans, California. In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, this pilot workshop attracted nearly two dozen nature journalers. © TNC

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. For more information, visit www.firenetworks.org. Questions? Email fire@tnc.org