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.
Most of us have heard about large, destructive wildfires in recent years in Australia, Europe and the western United States and Canada. And we know about the connection between worsening climate change and increasing wildfire activity. While wildfires can be devastating, ecosystems and Indigenous cultures can also be damaged by the absence of fire. People’s complex relationships with fire are at the heart of both our fire problems and their solutions. Read on to learn how TNC is working with groups around the world to address this global challenge.
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 vegetation 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, this is 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.
The Nature Conservancy is the world’s leading nonprofit organization working on fire issues. We have 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 for biodiversity to one that includes policy and finance, elevating the leadership of Indigenous fire practitioners, growing skilled and diverse fire management workforces, and helping communities develop ways to live more safely with wildfire.
Revisiting a Legacy of Exclusion
For millions of years, fire has shaped the diversity of life on Earth. Using sophisticated fire practices for millennia, Indigenous societies have carefully shaped the ecosystems we see as natural today.
In sharp contrast to the current situation in the U.S., there are still many places around the world where Indigenous peoples and local communities are living in relative harmony with fire—skillfully using it as a tool to shape the forests and grasslands where they live.
Fire exclusion policies have also had the effect of excluding many people, including Indigenous groups that had been stewarding their lands with fire for millennia, from participating in fire management activities and decisions. (TNC is working to address this type of exclusion as well. Learn more about the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network.)
Climate change, including higher temperatures, drought and lower humidity, compounds problems associated with the buildup of excessive vegetation and contributes to the destructive wildfires we’re seeing today. Large fires emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases, which accelerate the impacts of climate change.
The Nature Conservancy is partnering with government agencies, Indigenous peoples and others to bring the role of fire in nature back into balance and help communities prepare for, manage and live safely with fire.
- Acknowledges that Indigenous peoples have shaped today’s ecosystems with fire for millennia and that it is vital to support their efforts to bring fire back into balance.
- Has been working with fire since 1962, when we conducted our first controlled burn on a TNC preserve in the United States. No other private organization comes close to matching our fire management capacity and experience or the breadth of expertise we bring to addressing fire-related challenges for people and nature.
- Believes that durable solutions require a variety of skillsets and mindsets, and we are striving to make fire management organizations more inclusive and welcoming for women and people of color. We also support the rights of Indigenous peoples to manage their ancestral lands with fire.
- Has more than 400 qualified prescribed fire staff and volunteers that follow virtually all the same wildland fire qualification standards used by U.S. federal agencies.
- Burns about 120,000 acres and helps partners burn more than 220,000 acres every year in the U.S.
Global Case Studies
In Africa, at Zambia’s Kafue National Park, specialists from TNC in Arkansas have trained park staff and others in the careful application of prescribed fire. Here—where TNC has worked with fire and locals since 2011—burning early in the year helps prevent damaging late-season wildfires. Fire management skills help many people—including wildlife officers, rangers, safari tour operators and local villages—protect themselves and iconic wildlife from unplanned fires.
The Nature Conservancy in Belize has been working with government partners, NGOs and Mayan communities for decades to protect that country’s fire-adapted pine savannas. As an outgrowth of that work, staff from the U.S. and Belize have organized several trainings. The most recent event took place at a 60,000-acre tract in the Toledo district and afforded Conservancy fire staff from the U.S. rare opportunities to practice fire suppression techniques and protocols that they are required to master before advancing to higher positions. Watch a related video.
In Australia, TNC is helping establish a resilient and inclusive conservation economy that supports long-term sustainable land management and the wellbeing of people who depend on their land. Aboriginal Australians combine ancient fire knowledge and practices with support from contemporary fire science and climate change mathematics to help deliver fire programs across vast areas of Australia.
Our North America Fire Work
Across North America, we are facing mounting societal costs from wildfires, including property destruction, deaths, increasing firefighting costs and health impacts from smoke. Uncharacteristically severe wildfires are also harming nature’s ability to support people, such as by damaging forests that filter our drinking water and sequester carbon. These impacts were especially evident in the western U.S. in 2020 and 2021. Experts warn that the very future of western U.S. forests is in jeopardy. By mid-century, the West could experience two to six times more damaging wildfires than we are experiencing today.
We accomplish our goals in North America by:
Supporting Local Leaders in Communities Striving to Become More Resilient to Wildfire
Enduring change is only possible if communities envision and ‘own’ their wildfire resilience work. Successful, sustainable solutions for improving our relationship with fire require a range of different perspectives at all geographic scales. Often, the best strategies are developed and implemented locally, and we believe in supporting communities—for example, with peer support, trainings or funding for workshops—to empower themselves to address their fire-related challenges.
Investing in Innovative Planning Approaches and Fire Management Collaboratives Aimed at Making Wildland Fire Decision-making More Inclusive
Policies of exclusion have led to where we are today. This includes the removal of traditional burning practices as well as the failure to consider local needs in land and fire management decisions. Through the Fire Learning Network and the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, we support community-based, collaborative efforts to increase ecosystem resilience and support fire-dependent cultures.
Through LANDFIRE—TNC’s 17+-year partnership with the Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service—we provide spatial data and models at local, regional and national scales to support fire managers who plan, assess and monitor activities on the ground.
Supporting Enabling Policies and Funding
TNC advocates for reallocating resources toward more proactive ecosystem management and equitable community preparedness—investments that will reduce firefighting and community recovery costs in the long run. Prescribed burning is regulated at the state level and in 2021 Conservancy staff were instrumental in the passage of key legislative and funding initiatives in California and several other western states.
Expanding and Diversifying our Fire Management Workforce
To expand the workforce of those skilled in proactive fire management principles and techniques, TNC leads trainings, supports grassroots practitioner networks, invests in mentorships and cooperative burning efforts, and provides funding to support community leaders. Assisting local people to share their fire knowledge and skill in controlled burning while providing training in fire management principles and techniques where needed are ways to help ensure any given community’s needs will be met into the future. Those needs may include reducing overgrown vegetation, improving watershed health, supporting sustainable agriculture, creating jobs and improving conditions for recreation and tourism.
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 and resources in ways that maximize opportunities for outreach, treatment and training.
While TREX helped us grow the number of skilled fire workers, TNC understood the need to support initiatives aimed at diversifying the fire management workforce and engage under-served communities in local wildfire adaptation efforts. In addition to helping form the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, we created Women-in-Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) in 2016 to engage participants in building a support network for female fire practitioners working to advance their leadership. The fourth WTREX takes place in 2022.
By autumn 2021 we had hosted over 100 TREX events and cooperative burns that have provided more than 3,600 training opportunities to fire workers.
Working with Indigenous Peoples
Increasingly, Indigenous peoples are recognized for their ability to contribute to solutions for our mounting fire challenges. In 2015, we met with fire practitioners and cultural leaders from the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk tribes to ask two questions: “Would a network among tribes to advance fire partnerships be useful?” and “If so, how would such a network differ from other fire networks?” They said that revitalization of traditional fire culture in today’s context was an urgent need, and that the very survival of their cultures depended upon Indigenous people returning fire in a culturally centered way to their ancestral territories. With support from the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (IPBN) was born.
Today the IPBN includes 18 tribes in seven states and interest is burgeoning. Administered by TNC, the network is led in substance by Indigenous fire practitioners from each of the participating tribes. Activities include cultural burning in association with TREX, community engagement in revitalizing fire culture, landscape-level strategic planning and working together with contemporary fire control agencies to overcome barriers to cultural burning.