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Learning to Burn: My California TREX Experience

Keith Perchemlides 11/26/2013

This October, I powered down my computer, set aside my clipboard, and picked up a drip-torch. As an ecologist focused on fire-adapted habitats (oak, prairie, chaparral, dry conifer), I felt it was high time to get some direct experience with this elemental force that has shaped so many of the places we love and strive to protect. I joined the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council’s training exchange, or TREX, an intensive two-week program where we actively learned to work with fire while conducting controlled burns. 

I’ve passed up a number of fire training opportunities over the years – these were classroom-based and emphasized fire suppression tactics with little hands-on experience. This TREX, organized by the Fire Learning Network, Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, and The Nature Conservancy, was a very different experience: entirely about controlled burning, solidly grounded in fire ecology, and strongly focused on learning by doing. I was not disappointed.

Over the course of two long weeks, our group of 40 participants from eight states and Spain, with a wide range of backgrounds and experience, representing over a dozen agencies, organizations, and private companies, completed 14 burns covering nearly 400 acres. These spanned habitats from ridge-top prairies at Redwood National Park, to diverse hardwood and pine-oak savanna on private lands in the Klamath River Watershed, to shrub and dry conifer at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Suddenly, I have a solid foundation of fire experience and a new network of contacts.

The days were demanding, but undeniably fun. I set strips of fire blazing through dry grasses and forest litter, swung a McLeod to clear hand-lines, worked with engine crews and sawyers to extinguish towering chimney-fires in hollow trees, and labored into twilight with a backpack water-pump and Pulaski hoe to put out smoldering stumps near the edge of the burn during “mop-up.” 

The learning environment was exceptional with continual opportunities to develop new skills, learn by observing, be coached by experienced practitioners, and track ecological fire effects from burn-plan objectives through next-day walk-throughs. What impressed me most about the TREX was the efficiency and effectiveness of the program itself; it simultaneously provided excellent training, accomplished important on-the-ground work, developed relationships between diverse groups and individuals, and helped dispel public concern over the use of controlled burns. It was a great inspiration to get directly involved with fire and continue building my skills.

I’ll be working to support a more active burning program in our chapter – and am happy to talk more about the TREX with anyone who’s interested. This coming year Pete Caligiuri, Central Oregon forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, is working with the Fire Learning Network staff to sponsor a similar training exchange in Central Oregon, and concurrently the Conservancy's Oregon Forest Team and Fire Team are part of a coalition that is developing the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council, including a new chapter in southwest Oregon; all working to build collaborations and make good fire happen where it is needed.