Prescribed Fire Learning Exchange - Chama TREX

by Esmé Cadiente

Recently I was in Chama, New Mexico on a prescribed fire learning exchange with forty other firefighters from around the world. Prescribed fire training exchanges (TREX) provide training and learning opportunities for wildland fire professionals while meeting resource objectives on a landscape. This novel program brings qualified firefighter trainees together with highly experienced firefighter trainers on a live prescribed fire. The result is that forests are made healthier and more qualified wildland firefighter capacity is created.

In the world of wildland firefighting, there are three common types of fire that a firefighter may face: 1) aggressive, catastrophic wildfires that can threaten human and forest resources; 2) wildfire that can be safely managed for the forest’s benefit; and 3) prescribed fires that are ignited and managed for the ecological health of the forest, to protect communities from wildfire threat and to protect the forest from catastrophic wildfire.

Prescribed burning is a forest management technique used to safely introduce fire back into forests adapted to frequent fire, create more diversity in age class and structure, and reduce overcrowding in forests. By using low-intensity surface fire, we can reduce forest fuels and flammable litter to mitigate for catastrophic wildfire. Prescribed fire is often implemented in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), wildlands that border communities, to protect homes and towns from wildfire.

On this particular TREX event, coordinated by The Nature Conservancy and Chama Peak Land Alliance, firefighters from The Nature Conservancy, Forest Stewards Guild, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the USDA Forest Service, several state agencies from New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, and firefighters from around the USA, Indonesia and Spain had convened in Northern New Mexico to implement a prescribed fire in Pagosa, CO and Chama, NM. TREX events are a unique learning opportunity in that they provide a hands-on experience in collaborative prescribed fire with fire professionals from all over the world. I had been assigned on a holding crew as a translator for three Spaniards who didn’t speak English. Joined with us was an Indonesian firefighter and three firefighters from Timberline Volunteer Fire Department in Summit County, Colorado. The eight of us participated in burning an 88-acre unit on Forest Service property in Pagosa Springs, CO and a 43-acre unit in the WUI in Chama, NM.

Using fire to protect against fire may seem backwards, but in frequent-fire forests, this technique is highly effective. The idea is similar to that of an immunization, you receive a small dose of a disease to allow for the body to build a response against it so that if you contract the disease naturally, your body will know how to fend it off. Similarly, low intensity ground fire is implemented back into frequent-fire forests to reduce flammable litter and other forest fuels so that if a wildfire breaks out, the forest is in a condition such that the wildfire does not become catastrophic.

Wildland firefighting, on any kind of fire, presents its challenges— from enduring extreme heat and exhaustion to enduring extreme cold and carrying more than half your body weight up a mountain peak, firefighters are prepared to deal with it all. My challenge on this particular TREX, however, did not come in the form of physical exertion or endurance. As a translator, I found myself scrambling to grasp the right words to explain complex situations in a foreign language to four expecting individuals, all in the breath between commands from our squad boss. Challenging? Yes. Yet, it is these experiences that make TREX an extremely rewarding program. I was given the chance to train among people from all over the world, learning new techniques and building future firefighting capacity with a network of new faces. Furthermore, we safely returned fire to a fire adapted forest, decreasing the potential severity of future wildfires.

Photo captions (from top to bottom):

Photo 1: Esmé Cadiente with the three Spaniards and a man from Indonesia at the Chama Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. Esmé served as their translator while working together on an 8-person holding crew.

Photo 2: Low-intensity ground fire reduces fuels and litter on the forest floor, minimizing the severity of future wildfires and recycling nutrients from forest fuels. Ponderosa trees, like these shown here, have adapted to thrive within a natural fire regime of frequent, low intensity ground fires.   

Photo 3: Dense areas of vegetation near communities can pose a wildfire risk if not managed properly. It is more effective to take action before a wildfire breaks out than it is to wait until lives and property are at risk.