Prescribed fire training and education transforms rural residents’ relationship to fire and builds a foundation for effective landscape restoration.

For many Oregonians, fire means smoke, summer anxiety and blackened landscapes. With the increasing number and intensity or wildfires, the need to do something is urgent.

More than 1 million acres of land — many of them forest and wildlands — burned during the highly destructive wildfires of 2020. Clearing brush is essential to mitigating wildfire in Oregon, and one way to do this is through controlled burning — purposeful lighting of fire under ideal weather conditions, with safeguards in place. But controlled burning can be difficult for private landowners to implement.

The Oregon State University Extension Service, in partnership with the Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association, a cooperative composed of landowners and fire professionals, is doing work in the Rogue Valley to change perspectives and offer help through education and outreach.

To help normalize controlled burns, Chris Adlam, OSU Extension wildland fire specialist, is delivering hands-on learning opportunities, including live-fire trainings, workshops and conferences to help participants envision a better future dealing with fire.

This outreach has helped establish a new model for prescribed burning on private lands and has led to broader stakeholder involvement. With OSU Extension’s help, membership in the Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association has grown to include landowners, forest workers and wildland firefighters, including several federally qualified burn bosses, and attracted interest from collaboratives and community groups across the region.

North of the Rogue Valley, the day was gray and the skies threatened to open, but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of the 20 trainees from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who gathered in the Oregon State University Dunn Forest for lessons in prescribed fire.

The class — taught by OSU Forestry and Natural Resources Extension faculty — was a three-day learning experience for employees of NRCS, which consults with private landowners about land-use restoration solutions. In order to recommend prescribed fire, NRCS staff need to be certified.

Tom Snyder works in the Eugene NRCS field office and concentrates on oak woodland and savannah, a fire-adapted landscape that’s been shaped for thousands of years through intentional burning by the Indigenous peoples now known as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Cultural burning supports wildlife habitat and plays an important part in the traditions, culture and Sovereignty of Tribes.

“We’ve been doing restoration without fire, which is the tool that created this landscape,” Snyder said. “We’ll be able to use fire in the future as part of our restoration methodology within the Willamette Valley.”

In most cases, according to Stephen Fitzgerald, Extension silviculture specialist and director of the OSU
College of Forestry Research Forests, landowners use heavy machinery, mowing, spraying and grazing to thin out overgrown land. Grazing is better than mowing because there’s no thatch buildup that remains as fuel for wildfires. But nothing beats fire.

“Fire recycles nutrients and causes a flush of growth. Then those plants support insects, which are important pollinators, and other wildlife,” he said.

Extension by the numbers
 -5381 educational presentations
 -1,140 consultations with Extension agents
 -7 extension agents carry out statewide fire program

A version of this story appeared in the 2021-2022 College of Forestry Biennial Report.

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