A journal page from the Association for Fire Ecology Conference in Orlando, FL

Just a few short months after joining the Southwest staff of the Forest Stewards Guild, I attended this year’s Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) Conference in Orlando, Florida. Shortly prior, thanks to hard work by my colleagues and myself, we had successfully wrapped-up a 2-week Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) in the Rio Trampas Watershed (read more here). That was just one of many collaborative burns involving the Guild. With a presentation of that work in hand, I set off for a winter visit to the tropics.

At the AFE Conference, I participated in a panel titled: “Fire Management in the Southwest: Moving toward Resource Benefit,” organized by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium. I presented on the Guild’s work in the southwest organizing collaborative burn events to build Fire Adapted Communities. For a half dozen years, the Guild has organized five collaborative burns to bring the benefits of prescribed fire to landscapes that might not otherwise be burned. It was exciting to see how the Guild’s work fits into the larger mosaic of agencies, collaboratives, and researchers all working to advance the return of fire to the forests and grasslands of the southwest.

Beyond this panel, it was difficult to choose between the plethora of concurrent sessions. I attended several talks highlighting successes of fire adapted communities including a progressive organization in Spain, festivals celebrating the reintroduction of fire in North Carolina, and a community fire effects monitoring team in Belize. I also learned of research about the role of fire in riparian areas in the Southwest, and the effects of fire on ant communities in Valles Caldera National Monument near our Santa Fe office. There were technical presentations of new mobile data collection platforms and devices for monitoring soil heating during fires. A current study from the Klamath region of Northern California, a place where I have lived and worked as a prescribed fire practitioner, focused on how indigenous cultures are using fire to revive and restore the resources traditionally used for basketry.

As a western US resident, it was enlightening to discover more about the fire culture of the Southeast, where the barriers to implementing prescribed fire are fewer, and there is a higher acceptance of fire as a natural force for good. This has led to a variety of prescribed fire associations comprised of citizens who are able to help each other implement prescribed fire on their properties. Often these efforts are aided by extension agents at local universities who serve an organizational role.

A program being implemented by extension agents in Oregon called the Citizen Fire Academy, is modeled after the Master Gardener program. This collaborative education service puts locals through an intensive program taught by experts to increase the knowledge of Firewise and help develop fire adapted communities. I can envision the Guild expanding work in the southwest to implement a program like this. It would complement the work we are already doing to build robust fire adapted communities.

Lastly, I had a chance to leave the Disney World center of Orlando where the conference was held, to visit the Tiger Creek Preserve in central Florida. This preserve has been intensively and deliberately restored to a longleaf pine ecosystem from a severely degraded landscape, mainly using prescribed fire. The ecosystems of Florida are a wonderous thing and are a remarkable study on how a few feet of elevation, or the variability in fire return intervals, can drastically change an ecosystem. For example, in this area, live oaks are a late successional tree that will appear with a lack of fire. Amazingly, in Florida during prescribed fire operations, live oak patches within longleaf pine stands will suppress ground fire. Once their leaves are on the ground, they form cup shapes that will hold moisture and prevent surface fire, while pine litter and grass immediately adjacent are burning. In the xeric and mesic ecosystems I’m familiar with, live oak litter will burn just as readily as the surrounding fuel!

I appreciate the chance to bring back to Santa Fe many new ideas from all the research and technology I learned about (along with a thick stack of publications). More than anything, I’m grateful for being part of the excitement of hundreds of fire professionals working in management, community organizing, and research coming together to engage in a field they care deeply about. For the months to come, the inspiration I drew from this experience will invigorate my work in the Southwest, in this fire adapted landscape that’s my new home.