USA: Prescribed Fire Training in Florida – The National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC) (IFFN No. 23 – December 2000)

Prescribed Fire Training in Florida
– The National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC) –

(IFFN No. 23 – December 2000, p. 87-91)

Remarks on Prescribed Burning

Prescribed fire is described as a land management application that is essential to the practice of forestry, management of wildlife, preservation of endangered plant and animal species, improvement of range conditions and reduction of wildfire damage in the wildland/urban interface. One of the most important reasons for intentionally lighting these fires is to reduce naturally occurring fuels within forest areas, in order to reduce the risk of wildfire and the threat of substantial economic losses of timber and other natural resources. Prescribed fire is one of the least expensive methods of site preparation for reforestation. Certain pathogens that reduce growth in pines and other species can be controlled or eliminated by the use of prescribed fire. Unlike wildfire, prescribed fire is rarely lethal to most forms of wildlife and is therefore an efficient tool for improving habitat for certain wildlife species. Huge and extent areas are burned for grazing purposes and to improve range conditions for livestock. The use of prescribed burning is an irreplaceable tool in maintaining biological diversity and balance, and restoring plant and animal communities which are adapted to the existence of fire. Prescribed fires are set under controlled and monitored conditions and every “prescribed burn”‘ that land managers undertake is planned in advance with scientific precision.

The Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC)

There is no doubt that fire is an important tool of land management in the United States. During the period 1993-1997 the national land management agencies in the U.S. prescribe burned one million acres. In the southeastern part of the United States prescribed burning is a successfully implemented landscape management tool. The justification for prescribed burning lies in the fire history of this region, where a fire return interval less than 10 years exists over several thousand years due to lightning ignition and old land use practices of the natives. A long tradition here led to the birth of the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC), a national award winning initiative. Florida was chosen as an ideal site for the PFTC due to the year round burning programs of several agencies. The first organizational meeting of the Center was held in July, 1997. At the beginning it was just a concept on paper, but the concept turned into reality on 5 January 1998 with the start of the first session.

The National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center is a unique program for field prescribed burning experience with some classroom instruction on topics of interest to prescribed fire management. The PFTC is headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida. Prescribed fire locations are scattered around Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Georgia. The purpose of the training is to get actual field experience for prescribed fire, in order to increase skills and knowledge and to build confidence in the use of prescribed fire. The Florida Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Florida State Parks, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Florida Water Management Districts, Tall Timbers Research Station, Nature Conservancy, and U.S. Department of Defense, are cooperating with the PFTC and further sponsor the whole program. 2000 was the third year of the PFTC and students from all geographic regions of the United States as well as international students participated in the program. Four sessions were carried out between January and May, 2000. A fifth was cancelled due to extreme wildfire activity in Florida.

The goal of the center is to provide an accelerated learning opportunity for prescribed fire training with a maximum amount of actual prescribed burning. In a normal fire season students can expect to participate in eight to ten prescribed burns during their stay, depending on the weather conditions.


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Basic learning topics are:

  • Prescribed fire uses
  • Monitoring and evaluation of fire effects
  • Cooperative arrangements
  • Current US fire policy
  • Aerial ignition techniques
  • Fire ecology/fire effects field trips to local burning sites
  • Task book administration
  • Risk assessment and burn complexity
  • Smoke management
  • Firing techniques

After this training experience, participants should understand the concept of prescribed fire in order to have a quality prescribed fire program and be confident in all of the important attributes. Prescribed fire has to be learned, even by fire fighting professionals.

Prescribed burning in Florida

The topography in Florida is generally flat. The vegetation consists of southern yellow pine stands with brushy undergrowth of gallberry and palmetto. The duff layer is extremely thick and covered with moss. All is dry and burns. Most soils are sandy in Florida and most line construction is done with dozer plows, which is a very efficient procedure. Typically for Florida green vegetation burns, especially palmetto and cabbage palm trees, where the fire spreads hot with a rapid rate of speed. The fire spread here is not slope dependent but vegetation and wind driven. Rain-wetted vegetation will burn soon after a rain shower and even after a downpour the vegetation can burn within 24 hours.

PFTC´s training program


The headquarters of the PFTC is located in Tallahassee, Florida. Upon arrival, students will be picked up by their field coordinator (team leader). The first four days involve reception, classroom instruction, some orientation, and field trips. Teams of six will then be stationed at one of several geographic locations (hubs) within Florida or surrounding states. While the groups stay at a hub for a couple of days or a week, they will participate on prescribed burns with a number of different agencies. One day per week is set aside for classroom. The intention is to move the groups weekly to different locations to experience the different variety of fuel types. After two weeks of travelling, the teams return to Tallahassee.


A group of seven persons – six students and one field coordinator – is the optimum size of one burning team. As the experience also shows, team individuals have different levels of education, experience and qualifications, which lends desirable diversity to team makeup. The field coordinator handles coordination within the group, with other agencies (host agencies), helps with logistical functions, provides a liaison back to the center, and facilitates tracking of task book completion by the trainees. Depending on the field coordinators expertise, they may act as a backup instructor. The field coordinators are not production members of the group, although they may burn with the crew when other duties allow.

During the field work the teams are visited by instructors, who are experts in various aspects of prescribed fire and who teach additional knowledge to the teams. They present short lessons relating to prescribed fire. The lessons are practical in nature and are intended to present material that supplements the standard Prescribed burning (Rx) courses. Presenters teach topics such as smoke management, burn planning and goal setting, prescribed fire uses, monitoring and evaluation, cooperative arrangements, and current fire policy. Such lessons will normally be held in the morning. The presence of the presenters at the field burns in the afternoon results in additional discussions and answers to questions by the students. The aim of the prescribed burn training is to experience a variety of burn situations and techniques, from fuel reduction to ecosystem burning. Each unit hosting the teams for a particular burn will likely approach their project differently from everyone’s home unit or from another host unit. Knowledge from this variety of approaches is part of the learning experience being advocated by the center.


Lodging during the training will be in a variety of shared room facilities, such as bunkhouse type lodging, camp facilities, and motels. It is important to bring a sleeping bag to insure flexibility. Breakfast and lunch goods are provided and these meals are prepared by the members of the teams. Depending on the daily burn assignment, arrangements for evening meals will be set up in restaurants.

Equipment and outfit

Participants should be equipped as they would go on a fire. The gear should include several sets of fire proof Nomex shirts and pants, two pairs of leather boots, fire shelter, hard hat, field pack or web gear, etc. Additionally a radio chest harness with a programmable hand held radio is very useful. Since the planned burning schedule of each team can change according to the overall burning weather in Florida, there is always the possibility that groups will be shifted to a colder state north of Florida.

Safety is No. 1

Human life stands before all other things. Safety zones and escape routes, such as roads, plow lines and the fire lines should be kept ever in mind. If participants don’t feel comfortable with a situation, they are expected to speak out. The beginning of a disaster is the missing communication between the different parties; contact with all team members must be kept intact. Local experts will inform the teams about the dangers. High leather boots are recommended. Insect repellent, available on every crew, can be very helpful. The high heat and humidity restricts fire fighters’ normal production pace. It is very important to take the time to find the personal pace and to acclimate to the surrounding conditions. Heat exhaustion can occur on any fire. It is very important to drink water in huge amounts as well as sports drinks which work well to replace salts and electrolytes.

Relations with Locals

The local professionals are the experts in their area. Respect their judgement and listen carefully to what they have to tell you! These specialists have been fighting fire and have carried out controlled burning in their areas for a very long time. Things may be done differently from everyone’s experience, but this doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Remember you are guest whenever and wherever you go to burn during the session!

End of the sessions

The closeout starts with the return to PFTC in Tallahassee. The debriefing and the final technical discussions are held in the PFTC Conference Room. Students and field coordinator questionnaires will be filled out. An open, constructive discussion between all the team members and the PFTC officials will follow. All opinions are collected for the future improvement of the whole program. Rx fire handout material can be taken out as desired. The field coordinators are responsible for each member of their team until the team members depart from Tallahassee for their home unit.

PFTCs International Vision

PFTC and international students

Since the beginning of the project international students have been involved. In the first year students from Puerto Rico participated on the program and were followed by students from Germany, Ghana and Nigeria. Future international students are desirable, not only foresters, but people from different land management fields, such as biologists and ecologists.

PFTC and the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)

There is an idea to extend the prescribed burning activities on an international level. There are other countries which still need assistance on how to bring such a program to fruit. The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) has worldwide good connections to other interested countries, which could participate in the creation of a Worldwide Prescribed Fire Training (WWPFT). The GFMC can facilitate an International Section of the Prescribed Fire Training Center (ISPFTC).

There are several countries which are currently conducting or preparing Integrated Forest Fire Management (IFFM) projects or are otherwise actively engaged in building national fire management programmes. These countries could make a first step in this direction by joining the WWPFT initiative. They would not only benefit from the WWPFT. They would contribute and share their own experience with other nations, especially concerning the learning process from traditional burning skills, the manifold social and cultural issues involved in the application of prescribed fire in land-use systems. All countries, including the PFTC and the GFMC as the network nodes would benefit this collaborative process.

Currently we see note high interest in the following regions and countries:

Africa: Namibia, South Africa and Ethiopia

Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia: Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, China

South Asia: Myanmar, Indonesia

Central and South America: Brazil, Honduras

The Baltic Region: All countries bordering the Baltic Sea, especially the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland), Germany, and the Russian Federation

In a pilot phase of three years, one country in each continent could be selected to test the proposed concept and. On the second stage other countries could participate, building on the knowledge and experience from the already implemented “satellite states” of each continent.

A successful prescribed fire is a good fire! Hazard fuel reduction combined with natural succession and maintenance of healthy fire evolved ecosystems demands the implementation of prescribed burning. A non-successful prescribed fire is a bad fire! It turns into a wildfire, an uncontrolled burn, and leaves a path of destruction. It has become more and more apparent to those who work with prescribed fire that there is an urgent need for policy that will further define standards that can be enforced for everyone who uses prescribed burning. When this valuable tool is used carefully and professionally, many beneficial effects will appear.


Contact address:                                                                                                   

John Fort, PFTC Director
Bess Dickson, PFTC Administrator
Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC)
3250 Capital Circle SW,
Tallahassee, FL 32310
USA P.O. Box

Tel: ++1-850-521-2080
Fax: ++1-850-521-2081

The 1999-2000 PFTC Attendees:
Tobias Zorn, Florian Resch, Hans Page
Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)
Fire Ecology Research Group
Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry c/o Freiburg University
D-79085 Freiburg

Tel: ++49-761-808011
Fax: ++49-761-808012


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