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New collaboration shows way to get help with ‘insatiable’ prescribed fire need

A low-intensity burn on the recent Crawford prescribed fire near Cascade, Idaho
Steve Vigil
/
The Nature Conservancy
A low-intensity burn on the recent Crawford prescribed fire near Cascade, Idaho

On a Thursday morning in May, Forest Service staff and crew leaders gathered in the Cascade Ranger District Office for a briefing. They were putting a plan together for the nearby, nearly 100-acre Crawford burn on the Boise National Forest.

Matt Haupt, the district’s senior fuels technician, read out the weather: sunny, 70-75, relative humidity in the upper 20s to lower 30s, low winds.

“Today is looking fairly good, a little hotter and drier,” he summarized.

The burning has already taken place earlier in the week, and this day’s work would be mostly mopping up and checking lines. After crew members got their marching orders in the parking lot below, they headed east toward the burn. I jumped in with Haupt, who’s overseeing it.

“The last time it was burned was the spring of 2018,” he said, driving to the project site. “It's mostly ponderosa pine, which typically needs five- to 15-year fire intervals.”

Many ecosystems and species — like the ponderosa pine — are dependent on regular fire. Prescribed fire can bring a number of ecological benefits, as well as significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Haupt is with the Forest Service, but that day everyone else was working for The Nature Conservancy — or TNC — an environmental nonprofit.

A Nature Conservancy fire crew gets ready to head out to check the Crawford prescribed fire's lines.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
A Nature Conservancy fire crew gets ready to head out to check the Crawford prescribed fire's lines.

“The Forest Service still has their overhead structure,” he explained. “The supervision still needs to be there, but it's a lot of the manpower could be taken care of with TNC coming in.”

Federal agencies have committed to dramatically accelerating the pace of prescribed fire. In its 2022 Wildfire Crisis Strategy document, the Forest Service set a goal of treating 50 million additional acres of federal, state, tribal and private land. But last year, a major federal wildfire commission said that the current federal fire workforce — some 19,000 strong — is “not sufficient for the scale of wildfire risk reduction, response, and post-fire recovery work required now, let alone into the future.”

“Federal investment is urgently needed to create new and expanded workforce capacity that is focused on, and tailored to, mitigation, planning, and post-fire response and recovery for communities and landscapes,” the commission’s report read. Efforts to build that workforce, it recommended, should include the public, private and non-governmental sectors.

‘Insatiable need’

Jeremy Bailey, TNC’s North America prescribed fire training director, said forests and grasslands’ need for fire is insatiable.

A day after burning operations on this section of the Crawford prescribed fire, the ground is a clean black, and some smoke is visible from the line.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
A day after burning operations on this section of the Crawford prescribed fire, the ground is a clean black, and some smoke is visible from the line.

“And so is the need for a workforce that can do that work,” he said. “Back of the envelope, I estimate we need 10,000 employees nationwide.”

Last year, his organization received $45 million over five years from the Forest Service — money he said came out of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. They hired some 50 people on top of existing fire staff, and they have 20 to 30 folks out on Forest Service priority projects — like the Crawford burn — on any given day. His TNC colleague Matt Ward said workforce constraints are probably “biggest issue that is complicating everybody's ability to do more projects.”

“We’re adding needed capacity,” Ward said.

‘Instantaneous effect’

In a video shared by TNC crew boss Steve Vigil, you can see a snaking line of short flame burning steadily through pine needle duff earlier in the week, the sort of low-intensity fire that prescribed burns often try to create. When I visited, some smoking stumps were still visible from the fireline, but it was mostly clean, blackened forest floor.

“So we are looking at a post-burn landscape,” said TNC crewmember Slug Kaltenbach, my guide on the burn. “This was actually burned yesterday, if you can believe it.”

Kaltenbach, who uses they/them pronouns, is from Eugene, Oregon and is in their fifth year of fire, much of which has been suppression work. But for Kaltenbach, prescribed fire hits different.

“I think that prescription fire is one of the best feelings in the world to have as a job,” they said. “In one day of burning … you're going to have a larger effect than maybe like two weeks of work doing other kinds of initiatives, like thinning or piling. Fire is such an instantaneous effect on the ecosystem.”

TNC crewmember Slug Kaltenbach
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
TNC crewmember Slug Kaltenbach

They’re also drawn to the way TNC operates. Wildland fire has a reputation for brutal work schedules and long, unpredictable stretches away from friends and family. Poor work-life balance was one of the barriers to recruitment and retention in the federal fire workforce identified by the Government Accountability Office in 2022. TNC gives its workers fixed schedules, meaning they know exactly when they’ll be home.

That’s allowed Kaltenbach to be an active part of the Moon Mountain String Band back in Eugene, hard to imagine in other corners of fire.

Kaltenbach identifies as non-binary, and said they appreciate the near gender parity and diversity they see in their TNC colleagues, which contrasts sharply with federal counterparts. In fiscal year 2021, 84% of federal firefighters identified as men, and 72% identified as white. Limited workforce diversity was another challenge faced by federal fire agencies cited in the GAO report.

“We're super excited to have 50% of our workforce represented by women because that is not that is not the norm in the wildfire workforce,” TNC’s Bailey said.

Slug and their colleagues are also able to complete trainings and get professional qualifications on burns. All of these things together, they said, point toward a more sustainable, attractive way to do fire. And there’s always the most basic draw.

“Playing with fire is fun,” Kaltenbach said. “In a controlled way, of course.”

‘We need help’

Back at the district headquarters, Ranger Chris Bentley said that the TNC partnership is “exactly the direction we need to go.”

Chris Bentley, ranger on the Boise National Forest's Cascade District, explains how TNC crews fit into his agency's goals for prescribed fire. "It's just absolutely vital that we bring in these types of agreements and these types of partnerships. We can't do it on our own. We wouldn't want to even if we could."
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
Chris Bentley, ranger on the Boise National Forest's Cascade District, explains how TNC crews fit into his agency's goals for prescribed fire. "It's just absolutely vital that we bring in these types of agreements and these types of partnerships. We can't do it on our own. We wouldn't want to even if we could."

“We're still going to try to attract the traditional firefighter workforce for ourselves, for the Forest Service,” he added. “But we need help. We're not going to be able to do the work on our own. We're just not. There's too much work to be done, it’s too important that we succeed.”

He readily acknowledged that the TNC crews are a drop in the bucket compared to the needed workforce.

“But, you know, every drop counts,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.