Land Care Report: UW Prescribed Fire Class

UW students in fire protective suits standing in prairie for a spot fire exercise

UW students participate in a mock spot fire exercise, waiting for the instructor to call "fire!"

This spring, the Arboretum has been a partner in an exciting new initiative offering UW–Madison students wildland fire training. The training was incorporated into the spring semester class Landscape Architecture 375, Ecological Restoration Series: Prescribed Burning and Economic Drivers in Vegetation Management.

The idea to provide wildland fire training to UW students goes back several years, but it gained traction last summer when Jeb Barzen, ecologist for Private Lands Conservation LLC, in recognition of the need to implement more prescribed fire on the Wisconsin landscape, began asking friends and colleagues about ways to get UW–Madison students involved. After months of meetings, emails, proposals, revisions, and more meetings, the class was approved and ready for the spring semester.

The goals of the class were to teach the foundations of fire ecology and how to implement prescribed fire safely, effectively, and efficiently. In addition, students explored how fire and other aspects of land management can be implemented at ecologically meaningful scales throughout Wisconsin. Finally, the course sought to expand the pool of qualified and competent crew members available to assist prescribed fire crews on burns across southern Wisconsin. The class was designed with a unique blend of classroom lectures, online training, and field training—including live fire exercises—as well as voluntary participation on prescribed fire crews.

Classroom lectures were held both at the Arboretum and on campus, focusing on fire ecology, conservation grazing, environmental labels, carbon storage, and environmental incentives. Jeb was the primary instructor but also engaged guest lecturers such as Steve Apfelbaum from Applied Ecological Services and Dick Cates from Cates Family Farm.

Through the online portion of the class, the students acquired National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) certification as an entry-level wildland firefighter, also known as S130/S190 certification. S130/S190 certification is required to serve on many prescribed fire crews in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). This certification is also required to serve on wildland firefighting crews with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

In the certification field training exercises, students learned about water use, communications, fireline construction, and safety; they also had to pass a physical fitness test. Eric Mark, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota, administered the S130/S190 certification. In conjunction with the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy (Eric’s former employer) and the Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Council, he also secured funds to purchase flame-resistant jumpsuits and helmets for the students to wear during fire activities.

UW students putting out a spot fire during a class exercise in the prairie.
UW students putting out a spot fire during a class exercise in the prairie.

Live fire training exercises were held in the prairie near the Visitor Center to introduce students to basic fire behavior and the use of hand tools for fire management. Students were divided into small groups and, guided by individual instructors, they worked together to burn firebreaks through the prairie, dividing it into smaller units; practiced suppressing mock spot fires; and completed prescribed burns of the small units created in the first exercise. Students gained valuable hands-on experience that cannot be taught in the classroom, using drip torches, backpack water pumps, and flappers, and working with back fires (fire burning into the wind), head fires (fire being pushed by the wind), and flanking fires (fire moving perpendicular to the wind).

For the final component of the class, students participated as volunteers on three prescribed burns led by at least two different burn bosses with different conservation organizations. Burning with different crews exposed them to various methods, equipment, fuels, and landscapes, thus broadening the scope of their learning experience.

The southern Wisconsin prescribed fire community was very responsive when we sent inquiries early in the semester about where we might place students for their three burns. More than twenty-two organizations expressed interest in working with the students. That enthusiasm, along with the support from everyone who helped make the class happen, really illustrates the amazing dedication of prescribed fire practitioners in Wisconsin. The community is devoted not only to conserving healthy landscapes but also to coaching and mentoring the next generation who will carry on this work.

We enjoyed hosting the class at the Arboretum and we are grateful to the many people who helped make it happen. Jeb and Eric have been instrumental throughout, and with Carl Cotter of the Aldo Leopold Foundation they led the field training for the S130/S190 certification. Joe Lacy, Angus Mossman, Rob Nurre, and Jim Shurts, volunteers with Private Lands Conservation, and Chris Kregel of the Arboretum, helped with the live fire exercises. John Harrington was our main contact in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, and he facilitated the logistics of implementing a university class. Chris Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts, was involved in the early planning stages and helped shape the class. Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director, enthusiastically committed staff and land to facilitate the class.

Just as we debrief after every fire, we took time at the end of the semester to evaluate the class with the students and instructors and gather feedback about what was learned, what went well, and what we can do to improve the class. I hope this class becomes an annual offering to prepare students for a career in landscape conservation while simultaneously helping to conserve our landscape in Wisconsin.

—Michael Hansen, land care manager