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Using fire as a tool in the wild

Training programs show firefighters how controlled burns can shape land management and fire protection. And caution is on agenda.

December 23, 2007|Susan Montoya Bryan | Associated Press

CERRO GRANDE PEAK, N.M. — Wildland firefighters spend grueling weeks away from home each wildfire season, hiking steep mountains amid choking smoke in a potentially deadly battle to control the flames.

When the season winds down in late autumn, some come to New Mexico to learn how to harness fire to clear out overgrown forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

At the Southwest Fire Use Training Academy, a couple dozen firefighters take courses to become certified burn bosses. They gain experience helping with prescribed fire and other fuel-management projects.

"We get folks coming in that are tired from fire season," said Duane Tewa, a Bureau of Indian Affairs training specialist assigned to the academy. "But they still have the attitude and the mentality: . . . this is what I want to do, this is my job, this is what fascinates me."

The Albuquerque-based academy usually has a waiting list of wildland firefighters from across the nation. They don't have to pay for the program since it's funded by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land-management agencies. A similar program offered at the Prescribed Fire Training Center in Florida focuses on managing fire in the South.

The seven-week New Mexico program includes courses on fire behavior. Students learn how to use GPS units and portable weather stations to plan fires.

"There's all kinds of things going on in fire. Everybody's moving toward fire use and allowing fire to return to its natural role," said Jerome Macdonald, the academy's creator and program manager. "But you have to have that skill -- and even experience -- to be able to accomplish that."

The program also includes an arduous hike to 10,199 feet for a lesson on what can happen when a prescribed fire goes bad. Atop Cerro Grande Peak, students get a firsthand look at how an intentional fire set by Bandelier National Monument officials in May 2000 raced out of control, burning thousands of acres and more than 200 homes.

"This is an excellent opportunity for us to learn from mistakes . . . and try not to make those mistakes again," said Mike Watson, a student and squad boss with the Pleasant Valley Hot Shots of Arizona.

To become a master of using fire, Macdonald said, one must have a deeper understanding of fire and nature and be ready to teach the public that fire is not always bad.

Emily Irwin, a U.S. Forest Service fuels specialist, said the academy's lessons were important because overgrown forests, unhealthy ecosystems and urban sprawl would continue to be issues for the next generation.

"All the values that go with land management are really riding on their shoulders," she said.

Julian Affuso, the assistant fire management officer for the Smokey Bear Ranger District in southern New Mexico, said students were given a foundation so they didn't have to make decisions from the hip.

"That's what it's all about -- it's about preparation," he told the students during their hike at Cerro Grande. "Luck is for the unprepared."

The students are at the forefront of changing people's attitudes about fire, from its being a dangerous force of nature to a tool that can be used to reduce the risk of large fires, Tewa said.

It's already happening around the country. Since 2000, the number of acres treated by prescribed fire has risen from just over 1 million to more than 2.7 million in 2006, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Statistics also show that the number of wildfires allowed to burn to clear dead and dry brush has been on the rise.

David Mueller, a Bureau of Land Management fuels specialist, said there was a time and place for fire use.

"Now, it seems like using fire for certain benefits is becoming one of the top dogs in land management."

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