Arkansas Success Story: A Culture of Prescribed Fire
Arkansas agencies and NGOs collaborate to increase the number of trained prescribed fire technicians
“I think Arkansas, for our forestry community, is the most collaborative state in the country,” Joe Fox said, noting the partnership culture that existed when he started as state forester with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in 2012. It had been a wet spring, and the grass and underbrush grew green and tall. By May, though, the rains stopped, and it was an extremely dry summer. “We had over forty fires a day across the state that August,” Fox said. “It was something.”
The state hasn’t experienced anything close to the 2012 fire bust since. “Generally, Arkansas is blessed with weather that’s anti-fire, if you will,” Fox said. There’s still always a chance of a fire at the scale of what they saw in 2012, though. “We don’t really have enough staff and equipment to properly contain fires, to safely protect property and citizens by ourselves in an extensive fire bust. But we have ways through our partners to expand that,” he said.
To maintain the state’s fire readiness, the Arkansas Forestry Commission holds the annual Prescribed Burn School in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas National Guard, the USDA Forest Service and the Arkansas National Heritage Commission.
During the third week of every September, about 40 students and 50 cadre from industry, NGOs and nonprofits and state agencies come to Camp Robinson, an Army National Guard base in north Little Rock. There, as Fox puts it, they “spread the gospel of prescribed fire and its benefits for the forestland and the owners of the forestland of Arkansas.”
Those benefits are two-fold, they learn: prescribed fire helps ecologically maintain and preserve wildlife habitat, and it is the best tool to reduce available fuels on the ground and protect against wildfires. The students learn about the technical aspects of prescribed fire like weather, tactics and liabilities. They also get the chance to practice what they’ve learned through supervised burns on-site.
The Prescribed Burn School–which has graduated between 800 and 900 certified prescribed burn practitioners over its 22-year history–has been successful on many fronts. Before the program started, annual prescribed burn acreage averaged around 75,000-85,000; it’s now up to 250,000-350,000 acres per year.
The program continues to grow and expand, both in curriculum taught and new audiences engaged. The newest partner agency to send students to the Prescribed Burn School is Central Arkansas Water, the largest water utility in the state. They’ve recognized that prescribed burning can help protect the forestland that moves and cleans the water they use for their approximately 125,000 customers. “They sent one student in 2018, and they’re going to send some more this year, too. Soon, they’ll be part of the cadre, teaching practitioners from a whole range of fields about water quality,” Fox said.
“It also builds an esprit de corps for the entire group every year,” Fox added. The school builds relationships and trust among practitioners from multiple sectors and across Arkansas. “During a fire bust, you recognize the others on site from the Prescribed Burn School. You recognize a voice on the radio, and you know you can depend on them because they’re trained and certified.”
The Prescribed Burn School is also helping to prepare the next generation of certified practitioners protecting Arkansas’ forests. As Fox and the other founders near retirement, they’re finding younger, highly skilled young men and women to pick up the torch. “We’re bringing younger, smarter fire practitioners to be the champions, letting them stand on our shoulders to do more and better things for Arkansas.”
The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has helped guide the program since its release in 2014. “By its nature, the national strategy brings lots of agencies to play from the same sheet of music and work towards the same goals. It’s right in line with the collaborative strategy that we’ve used in Arkansas for a long, long time,” Fox said.
“Most of us do not think we live in silos, when we probably do,” he continued. “My advice to others trying to be more collaborative in their efforts would be to be a little more open to modification and change. And especially be ready, as you have some success in establishing collaboration, to give the credit to the other people, to the other group that’s doing something new and different for them. That is most helpful for building a really good team and being effective stewards of our forestlands.”