Igniting Exchange: the "spark" in the northeast's fire community

Written by Amanda Mahaffey

For many of us trained in forestry in the northeastern United States, fire was not a huge part of the curriculum. We have been taught to think we have an “asbestos forest” incapable of burning. Cape Cod’s Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribe, the residents of Bar Harbor, Maine in 1947, and New Jerseyans today are among the many members of the Northeast’s fire community that would disagree with that perspective. I’m here to tell you that fire is very much a part of our landscape, and that there is a parallel community practicing the stewardship of our fire-adapted forests, natural areas, and human communities that we ought to get to know. A recent meeting of the two biggest fire organizations in the Northeast demonstrated that the “spark” that inspires Forest Stewards Guild members to advance forest stewardship also inspires the Northeast’s fire community to create a safe and resilient fire-adapted landscape.

Igniting Exchange: Bridging the Gap between Fire Science and Management was held in Portland, Maine on January 31 and February 1, 2018. The 225 participants included partners in the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange (NAFSE), the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact (NFFPC), and the broader fire community. Participants represented a diversity of federal, state, and provincial agencies as well as non-profit organizations and businesses in forestry, conservation, wildlife management, and fire protection.

The Forest Stewards Guild is a partner in NAFSE, which means that part of my job for the Guild is coordinating field trips, workshops, and webinars on relevant topics that help put science into practice. NAFSE uses these forums as well as research briefs, research syntheses, newsletters, and social media to share learning around themes such as fire history, fire ecology, fire in oak, forest health impacts on fire behavior (e.g. spruce budworm, southern pine beetle), and fuels monitoring.

Igniting Exchange was the culmination of years of partnership and planning. The session themes were designed to encompass fire science approaches to management issues. One of the highlights was a panel on Lessons from Gatlinburg. In this panel, the first speaker used GIS to demonstrate the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire given the drought in the Southeast and the context of climatic trends. The next speaker outlined the progression of the wildfire from a few matches tossed by vagrant teens to a multijurisdictional incident. The final speaker related the operational preparedness and actions of the Pigeon Forge Fire Department.

The meeting also included a session on Smoke, Weather, and Planning Tools that demonstrated the importance of science and models in planning prescribed fire or managing wildfire. One session focused on New Jersey’s ideal situation of fire scientists working closely with fire managers. Other concurrent sessions used short talks to highlight technology tools and ongoing research questions folks are working on around the region. Another session highlighted spatial tools for fire management, while the final session examined human preparedness for extreme fire events.

A session of interest to foresters looked at Fire, Fuels, and Silvicultural Tools. The first speaker, Jake MCumber, manages the 17,000-acre pitch pine barrens and fields owned by the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Jake is charged with balancing the Army’s needs for training grounds with rare species habitat needs and fire safety and achieves these goals through partnerships and the integration of silvicultural tools with fire. Next, Jack McGowan-Stinski of the Lake States Fire Science Consortium shared an approach to invasive species controls by blending fire ecology and prescribed fire, with an emphasis on using the seasonality of the species and fire effects to guide decision-making. Finally, Helen Mills Poulos from Wesleyan University shared lessons from a research project on the effects of mowing and prescribed fire in rare coastal sandplain grasslands on Nantucket Island. Helen highlighted the findings as well as the limitations of research, and reminded the audience of the influence of human values in determining restoration goals.

The full meeting summary and links to presentations from Igniting Exchange will be on the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange website, www.firesciencenorthatlantic.org. Feel free to contact me, (207) 432-3701 with questions. I have learned a lot about the forests in our region through this collaboration, and I invite you to do the same by exploring resources on the NAFSE website. There is an entire community of forest and natural lands stewards with a Guild-like spark, ready to ignite.