A dozen-plus wildland fire workers gather in a circle, listening to one participant describing methods of controlled burns.
BUILDING TRUST Participants in a Spanish-language fire learning exchange pass a crew member in a trust-building exercise. © José Luis Duce

Land & Water Stories

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.

Get a glimpse of this Fall's trainings. UI Element / Long Arrow Created with Sketch. UI Element / Return Created with Sketch. RETURN

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.

A wildland fire worker explains directions to other fire workers, all dressed in fire-protective garb.
SAFE PREPARATIONS Participants in a fire training exchange make preparations before conducting a controlled burn near the Wenatchee River in Washington. © Kara Karboski

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:

A closeup of four participants of a fire training exchange viewing a digital map of a burn unit.
MAPPING THE FIRE Participants in a fire training exchange view a digital map before scouting a unit set for a controlled burn. © Jeremy Bailey / TNC

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.

TREX is part of a long-term strategy to build a collaborative approach toward fire in this area.

Fire Learning Network manager for The Nature Conservancy

"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.

A scene from a prescribed burn on Roslyn Ridge during a prescribed fire training exchange.
GOOD FIRE Fire training exchanges like this one near Roslyn, Washington, build confidence and capacity for conducting controlled burns. © Nikolaj Lasbo / TNC

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. 

Roslyn Taking Action Against 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."

“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. 

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

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.”

Page from John Muir Laws' nature journal, illustrating elements of a controlled burn.
PAGES FROM A BURN A page from nature journaler John Muir Laws' sketch book showing a controlled burn in Orleans, California. © TNC

Nature Journaling at the Klamath River Fire Training Exchange - Orleans, California

A sketch of items for a controlled burn by nature journaler Fiona Gillogly.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE Nature journaler Fiona Gillogly sketched tools and processes for a controlled burn near the Klamath River in Orleans, California. © TNC

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.”

A sketch of a controlled burn by nature journaler Robin Carlson.
ROBIN CARLSON sketched this scene during a fire training exchange near the Klamath River in Orleans, California. © TNC

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.

Participants of a fire training exchange walk toward assignments for a controlled burn.
TO THE FIRELINES Participants of a Spanish-language fire training exchange near Santa Fe, New Mexico, walk toward assignments for a controlled burn. © José Luis Duce

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.”

Participants of a Spanish-language fire training exchange pose in front of a sign for the Santa Fe National Forest.
SIGNS OF SUCCESS Participants in a Spanish-language fire training exchange have been working and learning in the Santa Fe National Forest for several years. © José Luis Duce

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 fire@tnc.org