Students fight fire and work with national organization

Students fight fire and work with national organization

24 February 2011

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USA — Many student organizations do things that some may consider exciting—going to national conventions, road trips, even outdoor activities such as rock climbing, mud-wrestling, the like. The organizations draw people of a similar mind together to accomplish their lofty goals or fill their resumes.

 But what kind of club (and what minded people) would sign up to be pitted against a 4000-degrees Fahrenheit blaze in the middle of the Deep East Texas forest?  These students, mentally stable from the looks of things, are in the Student Association of Fire Ecology

“SAFE at Stephen F. Austin State University was formed in 2003. It is a professional organization for those interested in fire ecology and the use of fire in natural resource management,” according to Penny Whisenant, Marble Falls senior and president elect of SAFE this semester.  The wry edge and charisma of the wildland firefighter manifests itself in their coincidental name and their devil-may-care mascot, Smokey the Hare, a buff rabbit in green cargos and red hard hat, hefting a drip torch over his shoulder, which many of the members of SAFE in fact are.

 “The Student Fire Fighting Crew is a part of SAFE, and assists the US Forest Service with prescribed burns or wildland fire fighting,” Whisenant said. SAFE has joined forces with the Sabine National Forest Wildland Fire Firefighters.

 “I have been a firefighter for the Texas Forest Service for about three years now.” said Andy Cripe, Lufkin senior.

Cripe is indeed a man capable of being on a fire line, a decathalon of a job involving 60-pound backpacks, cutting brush and digging lines in front of an oncoming blaze. However, Cripe has not yet had this chance with the Student Fire Crew.

“I have not been able to go on fires with the SAFE team yet, but I am looking forward to it,” he said.

 In order to participate in wildland fire fighting, SAFE members must go through a rigorous training program called red card certification, which allows them to legally fight fire on the line. Strangely enough though, wildland fire fighters also set what is called “prescribed fires” on purpose; not for clearing land for future Walmarts, but to improve the health of the forest. For some, according to the values of Association of Fire Ecology (SAFE’s nation-wide parent organization), “Fire is a critical ecological process in many ecosystems throughout the world.”

 If you want to beat a path to fire science at SFA, all roads lead to Dr. Brian Oswald: a Lacy Hunt distinguished professor, the sole fire ecology instructor at the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, adviser to SFA’s SAFE chapter and the president of the Association of Fire Ecology in 2011.

“Fire suppression [in the southeastern U.S.] has resulted in shift towards hardwoods a decrease in longleaf pine and an increase in stand-replacing fires,” Oswald tells students in his Introduction to Fire Management course.

Longleaf pine is a tree that once covered the southeast U.S., a species that ironically enough needs fire every few years to burn away competing bushes and shrubs, shrubs that choke out new pines and make and make the fires that do ignite hotter and faster, making a stand-replacing fire more likely as well. A stand-replacing is fire that takes all the trees in a forest, and perhaps the houses within it.  

 SAFE however does not sit idle waiting for smouldering cigarette ashes in the forest to burn local rural homes into piles of charred wood.

 “Firewise is a program that identifies possible present and future fire hazards within a community,” explained Katherine Syring, Temple junior and an active member of SAFE.

SAFE and the nationwide Firewise program hit the pavement and help educate rural communities near forests and scrubland, giving house-saving tips like removing leaves and pine needles from gutters and around your home and attachments, such as decks and fences. These tips and others can be found on their Web site:

Syring, along with Whisenant recently participated in Milam Settlers Day educating elementary school children and other venues in the East Texas area.

 According to Syring, Stephen F. Austin once again made University history in the national arena earlier last year without anyone knowing. “Because SFASU is the first Firewise campus in the U.S., SAFE works closely with surrounding communities to promote awareness,” she said.

 Whisenant’s enthusiasm burns with characteristic spirit; she sees what her new position on the national AFE board can accomplish for SAFE and SFASU.

“I feel excited to be elected and can’t wait to represent SAFE students on the SAFE board [and] to represent SFASU through SAFE, she said. “

Being elected will help me gain the leadership and communication skills that I will need in the professional environment [and] … helped me believe that I can do anything I set my mind to.”

 “SAFE aims to provide students with diverse backgrounds with an open forum on fire ecology through which research can be shared, networks formed, and funding and information resources can be accessed,” she said.

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