Throughout history, fire, in its physical form or just its idea, has developed a bad rap. Never mind the fact it provided warmth and a heat source to cook for ancient people, but do mind the devastation it can cause. The Texas Panhandle fires in May 2017 that took the lives of seven still burn in our memories. Driving down the road and seeing “EXTREME WILDFIRE DANGER,” on one of TXDOT’s big message boards brings chills to our spine as we think of the lives, livestock and spirit lost, but somehow simultaneously strengthened.
Fire is not all bad though –indigenous people who first inhabited the Americas knew that. After leaving their hunting and gathering ways and transitioning to a more agrarian lifestyle, they realized the importance fire served in helping their lands sustain the vegetables and grains they relied on. These days, producers carry on this knowledge and frequently conduct prescribed burns. A prescribed burn is a fire intentionally ignited and organized to follow a predetermined plan in accordance with National Environmental Policy Act.
Burning Brighter and Brighter
Dr. Robin Verble, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management at Texas Tech University, understands and addresses the fears people have in regard to fire, but stresses how to conduct prescribed burns safely and effectively.
“People are fearful of fire outside of a fireplace,” Verble said. “It’s always scared people because it has the potential to cause loss of economics and loss of life.”
Outside the hearth, the practical and beneficial uses of fire abound. It allows nutrient-filled new vegetation to spring up from the ground. The rejuvenating effects of fire also help to aid producers in improving soil quality. Prescribed burning also prevents dreaded wildfires. Without vegetation to burn, a spark will lack the fuel to spread, or be met by new, green plants which lack the dryness necessary to be a viable fuel source.
Verble, who is a native of French Lick, Indiana, is teaching the next generation of fire starters to responsibly utilize its power in her courses, NRM 3323 and 5323. Despite the fact the class isn’t specifically required to complete any degrees within the department, it is undisputedly the most sought after course offered among NRM students. She already has a waitlist filled with prospective students for 2019.
While no pre-requisite courses must be satisfied in order to take the class, Verble’s approval is required. Approval is gained through an application designed to help gauge a prospective student’s goals and intentions should they take the course, and more importantly, their dedication to the measures of safety required.
“I want someone who is really excited about the safety and the work,” Verble said. “It’s about 90 percent of what we do.”
People are fearful of fire outside of a fireplace.
A Legacy of Excellence in Fire Ecology
The class didn’t start with Verble’s arrival at Texas Tech in 2014. Dr. Henry Wright, who pioneered plethoras of modern fire ecology theories and practices, developed the course after he began teaching at Tech in 1967. He is and will be forever hailed for his hands-on, experiential learning approach. His legacy and expertise still shine through the course.
“I am teaching this class with the ‘Henry Wright spirit,’” Verble said. “We’re getting out and burning, both with private and public landowners. We’re giving students hands-on experience in range burning.”
A Family Atmosphere
Verble’s passion for teaching others about fire ecology began during her time at The University of Southern Indiana. While there, the instructor of introduction to fire ecology course taught lessons on wildland fire. Wildland fires are non-structure fires that are not prescribed and take place in a rural area. Her interest didn’t grow solely in the lecture hall, though. At the same time, she was beginning to learn about the concepts that would shape her career, her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Seth Pearson, had just joined a fire crew. Together, they would talk about the innumerable new things they were learning and studying.
The fire ecology network spans far beyond Verble and her husband, who is currently a wildlife biologist in Ralls, Texas. In addition to the prescribed burning course, she also helps organize a trip to send upper-level students who are interested in a career in fire on an expedition across the country, where they develop industry contacts while using different methods to burn. Verble said conducting a prescribed burn is an art – everyone does it a little differently, depending on the regulatory entity supervising the burn and background of the person burning.
“Fire is one of those super family atmospheres, where I know somebody who knows somebody,” Verble said while laughing. “We tend to stay really close-knit.”
Goals and Objectives
In addition to working toward familiarizing students with the basic concepts of prescribed burning, planning and fire management, a secondary goal of the prescribed burning class is for students to gain certification through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Type II Wildland Firefighting program. After receiving this certification, students are better qualified to work for a forest or park service.
One of the steps necessary to gain Type II certification is passing the “arduous pack test,” that requires students to complete a 3-mile hike in 45 minutes, all while carrying a 45-pound backpack. First-year graduate student Courtney Jasik, from Mertzon, Texas, recently took and passed the pack test with five seconds to spare.
“I’ll be so sore tomorrow,” said Jasik, as she powered through the third and final mile of the hike. Jasik, while keeping an open mind in regard to where her career will lead, she dreams of working as a rangeland management specialist.
“It’s extremely challenging, but also reminds me of how important fitness is in most [natural resource management] pursuits,” Jasik said.
Blazing a Trail
Many students who take the course aren’t ditching their rubber-soled boots and leather gloves on the last day, though. Students who show initiative, interest and talent often stay on another semester to be a teaching assistant for the class.
“I think most of the time [students] take the class and fall in love with it,” Verble said. Students often seek not only summer internships, but full-time careers in fire ecology and firefighting.
The spring of 2018 proved to be another tumultuous season with the constant risk of a disastrous wildfires burning ominously bright. Much of Tech’s next generation of land conservationists will go through Verble’s class. As students within Texas Tech University’s Department of Natural Resource Management, they will employ countless practices, including prescribed burning, to be dedicated stewards of the land.
Now, if we could just get some more rain.