April 11, 2022
Experiential learning at UAM: Fire management
By Lon Tegels
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- No substitute to learning by doing in Fire Management Course
- Planning and lecture time are put to the test in the field
- Hands-on learning opportunities are team effort
(Newsrooms: With video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk-lpfYbBlk, and additional photos at https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjzKeqN.)
MONTICELLO, Ark. — A year after becoming the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s first Forester for the Future Scholarship winner, Shylee Head has shown that she can take the heat.
Head and 16 other students were on the front lines of UAM’s Fire Management Course prescribed burning exercises on 20 acres of the West Block Forest, a portion of the university’s forestland that adjoins the campus. The class spent the semester planning the safest and most productive way to conduct the burn.
“We had to come in and look at where and what we are burning,” Head said. “The challenge in our group is that we had several big trees down that we couldn’t burn. It would have made the fire way too hot, and too big of a fire to control, so we had to plan around that. We studied lots of weather precautions.”
Head grew up on forestland, spending time with her dad on land primarily used for hunting.
“I’ve never been on a controlled burn before,” Head said. “I was at the ignition point. But for this fire, I moved further up to where they started the head fire. It was really, really hot. I was backing up far as I could,” said Head.
The freshman said this is the most challenging course of her academic career. “It worked out really nice. I got to burn a forest, and did it safely and successfully,” said Head.
Head is attending UAM on the Foresters for the Future scholarship, a generous opportunity to study hands-on forestry. The scholarship is funded by the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. Applications for this year’s recipient are being taken through June 15. Students interested in the scholarship can find more information on the UAM website at uamont.edu/academics/CFANR/index.html.
Months of planning
The class began planning the burn in the classroom in January, trying to calculate all the factors that go into a prescribed burn. While setting fire in a forest may seem destructive, prescribed burns are a management tool that emulates the fires that are naturally a part of forest ecosystems. It helps clear fuel such as leaf litter and clear out underbrush, allowing seeds to produce new generations of trees.
“You don’t want smoke heading to smoke-sensitive areas like schools and hospitals,” Head said, as she and her classmates studied area elevation levels, fuels on the land including deadwood and pine needles, as well as temperature, humidity and wind.
Leading the classroom charge is UAM Associate Professor of Forest Health, Dr. Mohammad Bataineh.
“The core fire class is taught every spring semester. Most years it culminates with a prescribed burn,” he said. “What we aim to do with the class is offer hands-on experience as much as possible, where the students gain confidence in applying fire on the landscape.”
“Fire is a core course in the curriculum,” said Bataineh. “Fire management is used in wildlife habitat, timber resources management, and used in restoration ecology. Fire is the building block that we use to teach natural resource management at this college.”
Divide and conquer
The 20-acre forest targeted for the fire was composed of loblolly pines. The block was divided into four units, and each unit was assigned to a group of five or six students.
“The goal of the exercise is to implement the fire plan they have written,” Bataineh said. “They are going to practice igniting and implementing the fire plan. They will decide on the fire technique given the weather conditions and site conditions that we have,” said Bataineh.
The students, clad in bright yellow fire-resistant Nomex shirts, helmets and other safety equipment, chose to burn in a ring pattern, using drip torches for ignition. Their burn was expected to reduce fuel on the block by a third.
Before the first flame is ignited, UAM Forest Manager Bobby Webb, works with students to establish fire breaks to keep the fire contained. The fire breaks were created back in the early ‘90s, Webb said.
“My student workers and I over the period of a few days install the fire break around the burn area perimeter and then subdivide the area for a little better control in case something happens,” he said.
The crew uses a bulldozer to comb the brush and needles off the firebreak and expose the soil to help contain the fire within the targeted forest area.
The fire proved to be a good teacher.
“Communication is a big part of everything,” said Ethan Lum, a UAM junior who was also on the front lines. “We were a little bit lacking on that at first. We also learned which particular fire pattern to choose for the area.”
Assistant Professor Elena Rubino, who specializes in human dimensions of wildlife and natural resources communications, was on-site to witness the prescribed burn. She studies the interaction between people and events such as these.
“There is slowly some recognition that fire is important,” Rubino said. “Smokey [Bear] did a great job promoting this idea that fires are bad and to put them out when you see them. Here’s a great example of a prescribed fire, why it should be here, and how it’s controlled. It’s an activity we like to see.”
This particular stand was burned four or five years ago, said Bataineh. Nearly every tree has burn scars, but the trees remain healthy.
“Each tree is growing and has a healthy crown,” he said. “These trees have been maintained and [have been] growing 60 to 70 years. The fires we are conducting underneath are not killing trees by any means. The whole point of the burn is to make the forest healthier.”
About the College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Arkansas Forest Resources Center
The College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Arkansas Forest Resources Center, a University of Arkansas System Center of Excellence, brings together interdisciplinary expertise through a partnership between the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The College and Center are headquartered at the University of Arkansas at Monticello campus, but their programs range statewide with the mission of developing and delivering teaching, research, and extension programs that enhance and ensure the sustainability and productivity of forest-based natural resources and agricultural systems. Academic programs are delivered by the College of Forestry, Agriculture, and Natural Resources through the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Through the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, research is administered by the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, and extension and outreach activities are coordinated by the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offer all of their programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and are Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employers.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of Arkansas at Monticello
Arkansas Forest Resources Center
U of A System Division of Agriculture