Bringing Fire Back
You've no doubt heard about the large wildfires in Australia, Europe and the western United States and Canada. We know about the link between worsening climate change and increasing wildfires.
While wildfires can be devastating, the absence of fire can damage ecosystems and Indigenous cultures. Our complex relationships with fire are at the heart of our fire problems and solutions.
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.
Fire Suppression vs Prescribed Burning
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. Our approach has evolved from one that was primarily focused on managing our preserves for biodiversity to one that includes developing more equitable policy and funding, supporting the leadership of Indigenous fire practitioners, growing skilled and diverse fire management workforces, and helping communities develop ways to live more safely with wildfire.
Women in Fire in the USA
Modern fire management requires different skills and mindsets than outdated fire practices. Yet only about 15% of the federal fire management workforce in the U.S. is women. We need more women in fire, and more people from groups traditionally underrepresented in fire management. See how women, Indigenous people, and others are getting involved in fire management across the U.S.
The land stewardship team in Pennsylvania is mostly women, and all are burn certified. One of these women, Natasha Whetzel, says, “Promoting diversity brings different perspectives in decision-making and problem-solving, and a wider range of skills."
"How cool would it be to be on a burn staffed by all women?" That's the question that launched the first all-female controlled burn at Disney Wilderness Preserve. The number of women in fire is growing, adding to the sorely needed workforce.
Intentional efforts to help women blaze new career trails in Virginia has positioned their staff to serve in leadership roles for Women in Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX), and even host an event in 2022.
Rebecca Hagerman and Kim Steinberger normally sit behind a desk, but they also conduct prescribed burns on TNC preserves. Rare prairie fen habitat depends on the nutrients produced by natural wildfires. They would love to see more women in the field.
Katie Sauerbrey got into fire work by accident. Now she's a Burn Boss! Katie leads a team of fire practitioners conducting safe, strategic controlled burns. These burns improve ecosystem health and reduce the risk of intense, destructive wildfires.
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 contrast to the prevalent 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.
Why is TNC Working With Fire?
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.
- Acknowledge 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.
- Conducted our first controlled burn on a TNC preserve in the United States in 1962. 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.
- Believe 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.
- Have about 500 qualified prescribed fire staff and volunteers that follow virtually all the same wildland fire qualification standards used by U.S. federal agencies.
- Burn—annually from 2013-2022—more than 112,000 acres on average and help partners burn about 287,000 acres in the U.S. In the last five years, burn assists have climbed to almost 350,000 acres a year.
Global Case Studies
Our work in Zambia, Belize, and Northern Australia
Kafue National Park, Zambia
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.
Deep River Forest Reserve, Belize
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. Early season fire management in the northern savannas reduces Australia's carbon emissions by 1.4 million metric tons of C02e per year.
Fire in North America
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.
Higher temperatures, increased drought and lower humidity associated with climate change is making problems worse. In fact, 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.
Yet the lack of fire caused by fire suppression practices can be just as damaging to biodiversity. Fire plays an important role in the health of our habitats and, without it, many plant and animal species that depend on periodic fire would disappear. Prescribed burns have been shown to increase biodiversity and maintain the health and sustainability of many natural habitats.
We're working to change the status quo by supporting local community leaders, sponsoring innovative fire training opportunities, and assisting federal and state agencies in transitioning to more proactive vs reactive fire management approaches. In 2023, TNC and the USDA Forest Service expanded a 20-year partnership with a series of agreements leveraging public and private funding to develop prescribed fire workforce and increase collaboration on beneficial fire.
We Support Community Leaders
Enduring change is only possible if communities envision and ‘own’ their wildfire 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. We believe in supporting communities—for example, with peer support, trainings or funding for workshops—to empower themselves to address their fire-related challenges.
We Invest in Collaborative Efforts to Make Fire Management More Inclusive
Policies of exclusion have led to the destructive wildfires we see today. Two examples are removing traditional burning practices and failing 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 partnership with the Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service—we provide spatial data and models at local, regional and national scales. These data support fire managers who plan, assess and monitor activities on the ground.
We Support Proactive and Equitable Fire Funding
TNC advocates for reallocating resources toward more proactive ecosystem management and equitable community preparedness. These investments will reduce firefighting and community recovery costs in the long run. Prescribed burning is regulated at the state level and, in 2021, our staff were instrumental in passing key legislative and funding initiatives in California and several other western states.
We're Expanding and Diversifying our Fire Management Workforce
We need more, and more diverse, people who are 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.
Different communities have different priorities, including reducing overgrown vegetation, improving watershed health, supporting sustainable agriculture, restoring wildlife habitat, maintaining cultural practices, creating jobs, and improving conditions for recreation and tourism.
To ensure a community's needs will be met into the future, we're helping local people share their fire knowledge and skill in controlled burning and providing training in fire management principles and techniques.
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 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 diversify 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.
By 2023, TNC and partners had organized more than 140 TREX and WTREX events in North America, Europe and Africa, providing training and hands-on experience to about 3,800 people and putting more than 170,000 acres of beneficial fire on the ground.
We Work 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?
- If so, how would such a network differ from other fire networks?
Quote: Marek Smith
The tribes 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.
From this base, the IPBN has expanded to include participants from an additional half-dozen landscapes, 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.