A woman in wildfire clothing uses a drip torch to start a controlled burn.
PUTTING FIRE ON THE GROUND - Nature Conservancy fire worker Char’rese Finney uses a drip torch to start a controlled burn to manage a longleaf pine forest in central Florida. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Land & Water Stories

Why We Work With Fire

The Nature Conservancy is well known for conducting controlled burns to restore health and diversity to natural lands. But that's not the whole story.

The weather is right, the crew is ready, and after months of careful planning and coordination, the moment has come to put fire on the ground.

Even for seasoned fire workers, it’s an exciting moment when they tilt their drip torch and fire starts consuming fuel and moving across the land. Over the coming hours, the crew will use their professional skills and experience to make sure the controlled burn is conducted safely and that it effectively accomplishes the objectives for managing these fire-adapted lands.

While the details may change (controlled burning is conducted safely, but somewhat more casually, in many places), it’s a scene played out on The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partner lands across the United States, Australia, Latin America and Africa. At least half of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems need fire to stay healthy—places like the longleaf pine forests of the Southeastern U.S., tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains and tropical savannas of Zambia.

But controlled burns like this one don’t tell the whole story. TNC has been working with fire since 1962, when we conducted our first controlled burn, and our approach has evolved from one that was primarily focused on managing our preserves to one that includes policy and finance, elevating the contributions of tribes and other indigenous peoples, growing skilled and diverse fire management workforces, and helping communities develop ways to live more safely with wildfire.

Fire is a global conservation issue. As TNC evolves to address critical threats to life on our planet, our approach aims to help people live with fire, rather than fighting it at every turn.

TNC's North America Fire Initiative Director
An illustrated sequence showing how forest overcrowding in an un-managed forest can cause a damaging wildfire.
Unmanaged Forest Fire in an unmanaged ponderosa pine forest (where fires have been repeatedly suppressed): Overcrowding can make the forest less healthy and resilient. When such a forest burns, the fire can extend into the crowns, killing large swaths of trees. © Erica Sloniker / TNC
An illustrated sequence showing how fire in a managed forest burns low and preserves a healthy forest structure.
Managed Forest Fire in a managed ponderosa pine forest (using controlled burns with or without mechanical thinning): A fire burns low through the understory, maintaining gaps between some trees that help prevent future large crown fires. © Erica Sloniker / TNC

Revisiting a Legacy of Excluding Fire

Our planet was born of fire. For millions of years, fire has shaped the diversity of life, especially in the majority of Earth’s lands that are fire-dependent or fire-adapted. Fire has influenced the evolution of humanity itself.

In sharp contrast to the current situation in the United States and other developed countries, there are still many places around the world where indigenous peoples and local communities are living in relative harmony with fire—skillfully using fire as a tool to shape the forests and grasslands where they live. 

Excluding Fire Doesn’t Work
Trying to extinguish practically every fire in places that historically experienced periodic fires is expensive. And the practice eventually backfires, one way or another. The absence of fire—whether started intentionally by people or by lightning or other natural causes—in fire-adapted places can lead to widespread habitat loss and create conditions for unnaturally destructive wildfires.

Increasingly, in the United States and other countries that have implemented strict fire suppression policies, we are seeing:

  • Extreme wildfire events that cause or threaten loss of life and property;
  • Mounting firefighting costs;
  • Habitat loss and degradation (from too much or too little fire);
  • Severely damaged forests and compromised municipal water supplies;
  • Loss of fire dependent cultures;
  • Heavy smoke and unhealthy air; and
  • Lost livelihoods and other economic impacts to communities.

A changing climate compounds the problems—altering temperature and precipitation in fire-prone regions—and it’s generally accepted that emissions from increased wildfire activity exacerbate climate warming.

In this 1962 photo, Nature Conservancy workers start the organization's first controlled burn on a preserve in Minnesota.
Minnesota, 1962 The Nature Conservancy’s first controlled burn was conducted in 1962, at Helen Allison Savanna in Minnesota. © The Nature Conservancy

Our Principles for Working on Fire

In the United States, it is critical that we safely and carefully increase the area treated with controlled burns while also expanding the practice of managing wildfires to maximize benefits for people and nature.

Working on fire presents challenges and opportunities. On one hand, addressing fire issues can have a multitude of positive effects, from protecting lives and property, to creating wildlife habitat and safeguarding water supplies. Fire can also unify disparate interest groups. Mitigating the negative impacts of fire on communities and creating jobs are things most of us can usually get behind. On the other hand, in the United States (and other parts of the world) learning to better manage and live with fire requires culture change and sharing fire management decisions (and risks) with communities when they are ready for it. This won’t happen overnight.

Improving our relationship with fire requires working at multiple levels. Whether we’re working on national policy, convening state-level stakeholders or treating an area with fire, we approach our fire work with the same principles:

Collaboration and Relationships: As with other types of conservation work, we rely heavily on partners in virtually everything we do related to fire. In the United States, we accomplish much of our work through landscape-scale, public-private collaboratives. The Fire Learning Network (funded through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior) has been supporting dozens of these collaboratives since 2002. We’ve learned that while there may be operational obstacles to treating all the acres that need fire, the more fundamental need is building relationships, creating a shared vision and working together as full partners.

Through LANDFIRE, our 15+ year partnership with the Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service, the Conservancy provides spatial data and models at local, regional and national scales to support fire managers who plan, assess and monitor activities on the ground.

Diverse Perspectives and Local Leadership: Good solutions to our fire problems require a range of different perspectives at all geographic scales. Usually the best strategies are developed and implemented locally, and we believe in supporting communities (for example, with peer support, trainings or funding for annual workshops) to empower themselves to address their fire-related challenges.

People and Nature: Our work is aimed squarely at the needs of both ecosystems and communities, needs that are best addressed in an integrated fashion. Perhaps the best examples of this are when indigenous communities practice traditional fire management on their ancestral lands. This can enhance food and cultural resources, create economic opportunities and improve community safety, while at the same time boosting forest health and creating habitat for wildlife.

Examples of Our Progress With Fire

Opportunities to make a lasting difference in the wildland fire arena abound, and TNC—because of what we’ve accomplished and learned over more than 50 years working with fire— is uniquely positioned to capitalize on them. Our work in various parts of the world represents a balanced portfolio of strategies—all aimed at living with fire—that will allow nature and people to thrive.  

A man from an indigenous community in northern Australia starts a controlled burn in grasslands.
Fire Down Under In Australia's Northern Territory, TNC is working with Australian agencies and organizations in assisting indigenous peoples to preserve and manage their native homelands. Early dry-season fires burn cooler and emit less carbon that late dry-season fires. © Ted Wood

Partnering with Indigenous Communities on Fire Challenges

Increasingly, indigenous peoples are recognized for their ability to contribute to solutions for our mounting fire challenges. By providing a supportive framework, the U.S.-based Indigenous Peoples Burning Network is uniquely positioned to elevate tribal contributions in this shared journey.

After many years of Australia’s northern savannas being ravaged by huge wildfires, emitting large volumes of greenhouse gases, Australia is gradually returning land management of the region back to its original human inhabitants. The traditional owners have always known that lighting relatively small fires in cooler months can prevent large wildfires in summer (and therefore reduce net carbon emissions). Working with Australia’s indigenous communities, we’re combining traditional ecological knowledge with the latest in fire science to benefit vast areas of Outback Australia. 

Yurok community, baskets and benefits of fire.
Multiple Benefits The 2014 Yurok Prescribed Fire Training Exchange had multiple benefits. Training burns promoted the growth of long, straight hazel sticks that tribal artisans require to make certain baskets and other culturally important items. © Jeremy Bailey

Developing a Diverse Workforce for Fire

Good fire doesn’t happen without good people. In many places there’s a critical shortage of skilled fire workers. Training local people in fire management principles and techniques is one way to help ensure any given community’s needs will be met into the future. Those needs may include reducing dangerous fuels, improving watershed health, creating jobs and improving conditions for recreation and tourism.  

TNC’s Arkansas staff has been working with our Africa program in Zambia’s Kafue National Park since 2011, training park staff and others in the careful application of fire. Burn-related knowledge and skills help many people, including wildlife officers, rangers, safari tour operators, and local villages, protect themselves and iconic wildlife from damaging fire.

In the U.S. TNC created the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) program in 2008 to provide badly needed training opportunities to thousands of fire workers. The key focus of TREX is promoting the spread of effective cooperative burning—helping diverse partners leverage skills, resources and staff in ways that maximize opportunities for outreach, treatment and training. TREX works on this at the local level, but also supports nationwide coaching and training to advance prescribed fire capacity and training at a larger scale through the TREX Coaches Network, which coalesced in 2016 around a core of committed TREX organizers and leaders. This network is dramatically expanding the reach of the TREX strategy by mentoring and linking practitioners who are in—and moving into—leadership roles.

A group photo of 14 female fire-workers at an all-female controlled burn in Florida.
TIRED AND HAPPY An all-female crew in Florida conducted a controlled burn in March 2019 to inspire more women in fire work. © Eric Aldrich/TNC

Embracing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fire Training and Practice

Elevating diverse voices and building equitable partnerships that address power imbalances as well as current and historical oppression are critical to solving our complex fire challenges. In the United States, we are supporting initiatives aimed at diversifying the fire management workforce, and engaging under-served communities in local wildfire adaptation efforts.

We instituted Women-in-Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) in 2016 to engage participants of all genders in building a support network for female fire practitioners working to advance their leadership. The fourth WTREX will take place in 2020. In Florida, a 2019 all-female controlled burn brought together skilled women from TNC and partner agencies to inspire more women in fire work.

A diagram showing how a community can be safe before, during and after a wildfire.
COMMUNITY WILDFIRE ADAPTATION Every community has different needs, and should consider what actions must be taken to prepare for, respond to and recover from inevitable wildfires. © Washington FAC Net

Helping Communities in Fire-Prone Areas

In 2013, TNC, The Watershed Center and USDA Forest Service launched the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network to connect and support U.S. communities that have been or could be impacted by wildfires. A fire adapted community consists of informed and prepared residents collaboratively planning and taking action to safely co-exist with wildland fire. Now, with dozens of members across the country, the Network's forums, seed funding and other resources are changing the way people relate to wildfire. 

Wildland fire workers hike with hand tools along a mountain road in New Mexico.
Fire Crew The Rio Grande Water Fund protects forests and water for 1 million people in northern New Mexico while creating hundreds of fire and forest management jobs. © Alan W. Eckert

Innovative Financing for Fire Solutions

After a devastating wildfire in 2011, the public-private Rio Grande Water Fund was created to safeguard the source of drinking water for 1 million people in northern New Mexico. The 50 or so Water Fund investors provide money for large-scale forest restoration, including thinning and controlled burning in overgrown forests to make the forests more resilient to wildfire. Since its launch in 2014, the Water Fund has treated more than 108,000 acres, an area three times the size of Washington, D.C. In 2018 it created an estimated 235 forestry jobs. TNC has launched water funds around the globe, including several in fire-prone watersheds of the Western United States.

Forest resilience bonds are another example of public-private partnerships that are directing investor capital toward forest restoration projects.

And carbon emissions credits—like those TNC helped advance for California—can provide multiple benefits of managing lands with fire, working with tribal communities and tackling climate change.

Improving Public Policy and Funding

In 2017, TNC helped influence a major change in the way the U.S. government had been funding its response to extreme wildfire events. Instead of borrowing millions of dollars every year from unrelated Forest Service and Department of the Interior accounts (curtailing their important work), the funding fix ensured that firefighting would be paid for like other natural disasters, freeing up agency funds for their intended purpose, including projects that ensure forest resiliency.

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