Cerro Grande Peak, USA — Wildland firefighters come here to the Southwest Fire Use Training Academy to learn not how to stop fires but how to start them, using prescribed burns to clean out overgrown forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.
The academy gets its students at a time when the wildfire season is winding down in late autumn, when many firefighters are heading home after grueling weeks on the fire lines.
“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.'”
A couple dozen firefighters take courses at the academy to become certified burn bosses, qualified to help with prescribed fires and other fuel management projects around the country.
The Albuquerque-based academy usually has a waiting list of wildland firefighters from across the nation. A similar program at the Prescribed Fire Training Center in Florida focuses on managing fire in the South. The program is funded by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land management agencies.
The seven-week New Mexico program, which graduated its most recent class two weeks ago, has courses on fire behavior, along with the use of GPS units and portable weather stations to plan prescribed burns.
“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,” he said.
Students also get an arduous hike to 10,199 feet for a lesson on what can happen when a prescribed fire goes bad. From atop Cerro Grande Peak, they can see how a prescribed burn set by Bandelier National Park officials in May 2000 raced out of control, burning thousands of acres of forest and more than 200 homes.
“This is an excellent opportunity for us to learn from mistakes or things that went bad and try not to make those mistakes again,” said student Mike Watson, a 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 prepared for teaching the public that fire is not always bad.
Emily Irwin, a U.S. Forest Service regional fuels specialist, said the academy’s lessons today are important because overgrown forests, unhealthy ecosystems and urban sprawl will continue to be issues.
“All the values that go with land management are really riding on their shoulders,” she said.
The academy’s courses give students a foundation so they don’t have to make decisions from the hip, said Julian Affuso, the assistant fire management officer for the Smokey Bear Ranger District in southern New Mexico.
“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.”
Since 2000, the acreage treated with prescribed fires has more than doubled from just over 1 million to more than 2.7 million in 2006, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
At the same time, more natural wildfires have been allowed to burn in order to clear away dead, dry brush before it can fuel an out-of-control blaze.
There is a time and place for both suppression and fire use, said David Mueller, a Bureau of Land Management fuels specialist assigned to the Boise center.
“Now, it seems like using fire for certain benefits is becoming one of the top dogs in land management,” Mueller said