UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This spring, five students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences traveled to North Carolina and Florida to learn about wildland fire management and fire ecology techniques. Wildland Fire Field Camp is a 400-level course for students interested in wildland fire management and research.
Students learned the ecological role of fire in the forests of the southern United States, where prescribed burning is used widely as a forest management tool. Students also participated in prescribed fire applications during their wildland firefighter training. Jesse Kreye, assistant research professor of fire and natural resources management, led the course.
Before joining Penn State, he worked in fire research at several universities and was a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. “This was a unique opportunity to see how fire shapes and maintains these ecosystems as well as the flora and fauna that depend on it,” Kreye said. “It also was an opportunity to see the results of active prescribed fire management in person and to be exposed to an actual prescribed burn application.” On the way to Florida, the class visited a research site in western North Carolina.
Fire is being used in this region to restore and maintain Appalachian hardwood forests. At the site, students learned more about designing field research studies. Most of the course occurred at the Tall Timbers Research Station (TTRS) near Tallahassee, Florida. According to Kreye, TTRS is considered the birthplace of fire ecology as a discipline and is a global leader in prescribed fire research. The students learned how fire is used to manage southern pine forests and its importance in managing quail habitat, which is a primary conservation goal at TTRS.
They also visited long-term fire research plots burned at varying intervals since the 1960s. Lev Rotkin, a senior in forest ecosystem management, called the trip one of the greatest class experiences he has had at Penn State. “Not only did we enjoy ourselves, but the field experience, knowledge and inspiration I gained turned it from a simple class into a pivotal point in my professional development,” he said. The course impacted Rotkin so much that he helped launch the Penn State chapter of the Student Association for Fire Ecology, a nationally recognized college organization.
The association aims to provide resources and information on fire ecology. At the same time, local chapters work directly with students to provide means and connections to pursue research and careers in fire ecology. In Florida, the class also visited sites in Gainesville, the Ocala National Forest and the Gulf Coast.
Frequent burning is used in these locations to manage longleaf pine ecosystems. Several threatened or endangered wildlife species, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers, Florida scrub jays and gopher tortoises, depend on the forest structure and flora. “The students were required to take national wildland firefighter training before enrolling in this class,” Kreye added.
“This course included the final requirements of that training.” The students conducted a required field day with TTRS wildland fire staff to finalize their wildland firefighter training. They learned about tools and equipment as well as prescribed burning operations. “The highlight of the field experience was participating in prescribed burning,” Rotkin said.
“We laid out some dried longleaf pine needles on a small clearing and burned them in different patterns to observe the significant changes that certain ignition patterns can have on even small scales. It really put into perspective just how much technique there is to prescribed burning, which I will likely use in my future career.” About 2 million acres are burned annually in the state of Florida.
Comparatively, prescribed fire was applied to only about 20,000 acres across Pennsylvania in 2021, explained Kreye. He added that prescribed burning is increasingly used in the commonwealth to manage forests and other ecosystems, including grasslands. He said this change is due, in part, to the passage of the Pennsylvania Prescribed Burning Practices Act in 2009. “In Pennsylvania, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry is responsible for wildland firefighting and conducts some prescribed burning,” Kreye said.
“The firefighter training these students completed can be helpful for those interested in working for the agency. It also qualifies them to go out West on fire crews during the western fire season.” Kreye added that the students’ exposure to prescribed burning is a valuable experience for those who may want to work in habitat management with the Pennsylvania Game Commission or other agencies and institutions that engage in prescribed burning, including the Nature Conservancy, U.S.
Forest Service and National Park Service.