Author: José Luis Duce, trainer and tutor during Spanish Crew TREXs in Florida and South Dakota - Spring 2015.
The Fire Learning Network, through The Nature Conservancy and The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the coordination of the Pau Costa Foundation, made this experience possible for a group of fire-fighters, fire practitioners and fire students from Spain, who were lucky to travel for a month around some states from the Central and West United States, meeting great professionals, discovering wonderful places and learning, sharing and exchanging knowledge and experiences with the main goal of improving our ecosystems with the use of fire as the main and most important natural tool.
The mixing of experience, science and knowledge among the 8 members of the group, was determinant to achieve the objectives set from the beginning. The module was leaded by Juan Rodríguez (US FWS at Santa Ana NWR, South Texas) – whose help was ‘key’ and José Luis Duce (TNC-WRI-PCF). The rest of the crew were: Roberto Romero and Ángel Larriba (highly experienced helitack-crew members, from GEACAM, Castilla la Mancha Regional Fire Agency), Pablo Bustillo (helitack-crew squad boss, from Castilla León Reg. Fire Agency and fire student), Eduardo Iglesias (hand-crew module leader and fire student from Galicia Reg. Fire Agency), María Jesús Herreros (ecologist, fire student and in her first year of fire suppression experience) and Verónica Quintanilla (helitack-crew squad boss, fire practitioner and recently graduated from North Carolina State University).
PREVIOUS TRAINING IN SPAIN
Before travelling to the States, the participants were instructed in Spain on basic training about the NIMS (National Incident Management System), the ICS (Incident Command System), the basic required NWCG S-130/190 training courses, and some other important ecological, historical and social aspects they would find during the journey, as well as the role of the Pau Costa Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service and some other agencies and organizations in bringing back fire to the land.
But the main goal of the weekend (April 10th-12th) they finally spent together in Guadalajara (Spain), was team cohesion, necessary in some challenging situations that a fire professional would face in different aspects and circumstances in the fire line, mainly related to safety. José Luis Duce wanted to be sure that everybody would understand the meaning of ‘being flexible’ and ‘being always fire ready’!
SOUTH DAKOTA TREX CANCELLATION
Winter and Spring had been abnormally dry in the Great Plains (like in many other regions of the States), so, Colby Crawford (Great Plains Fire Manager and Incident Commander) and his team, had to take the hard and wise decision to cancel the South Dakota TREX. It was very hard to be taken, especially with the previous work and the big amount of hours and efforts put in this so well organized event.
Once the decision was made, the same Colby Crawford and Jeff Meadows (USFWS), Jeremy Bailey and Jason Skold (FLN and TNC Nebraska Chapter) and many others, implemented ‘Plan B’ to take advantage of the situation and the presence of this ‘handful’ squad, to make the journey a ‘World Class Experience’. So, they decided to maintain the invitation for the group of Spaniards, becoming the ‘International Spain’s Crew’, sending them to those places where there were open windows to burn.
ARRIVAL AND FIRST DAYS
Some members of the group had already been burning for 10 days in Florida and they met at Sioux Falls Airport with the rest, late night on April 20th. From there, they travelled to Nebraska, to the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, where Jeff Meadows (Madison Wetland Management District, SD) Troy Davis (Fort Niobrara Fire Management Officer) and Billy Cumbow (Fort Niobrara FMO) and his crew would be waiting for the group. Once there, Paul Corrigan (From Salt Lake City – UT, US Forest Service) and Juan Rodríguez joined us, to assist with translations, operations and with lots of help.
The sequence of events was perfect; once introduced and familiarized with tools and resources and with the help of the Fort Niobrara fire crew, we had the chance to practice one of the most important techniques to construct control lines in the prairies: black-lining, first without fire, and then with real fire.
From there, we were moved to the west, to the remote and wonderful Crescent Lake NWR, were we assisted to the Yellowstone Fire Crew in his last 70-acre burn, leaded by Chris Masson (USFWS, South Dakota). Moved back to the Fort Niobrara area, the team had time to learn more about the habitat, plants and animals and the ecological processes of this beautiful area of the Great Plains, staying in the Refuge facilities.
During the following days, we had the great opportunity to plan, prepare and implement more burns units, with Billy Cumbow as the burn boss and a good number of great professionals, with whom we shared lots of learning, completing both 700-acre and 800-acre burns in two days in the nearby Valentine NWR (NE). After that we ‘completed the loop’ with two days of mop-up activities and the consequent rehabilitation of tools and resources process.
The cycle was complete with three more days in the Fort Niobrara NWR bunkhouses, taking advantage of some productive training provided by the Refuge personnel and some members of the team (including Paul and Juan). It was a great opportunity to learn about other’s experiences and why we were burning, an intensive course on invasive and native grasses (Kentucky Blue Grass, Smooth Brome, Big and Little Blue Stem and Switch Grass), birds, prairie dogs, bison and elk. We also had time to enjoy Valentine area and Niobrara River on a boat trip.
THE BLACK HILLS
Rain was wished and expected, and finally appeared! So the module was ‘moved’ to the West, looking for better opportunities to burn. With this idea, we drove through the plains of South Dakota, the ‘badlands’, ending up in Rapid City.
The weather did not look good to burn, but it was great to visit some very interesting places and learn about many other ‘fire culture’. We were delighted understanding the narrow relationship between native people-land-fire. During the following days, we had the chance to visit the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center and meet the people who manage fire in the region; in our visit to the Black Hills, we learned about a completely different ecosystem; we were in Ponderosa Pine territory and we could see the effects of the pine beetles. The small historical mining towns, the Tatanka Hotshots base, the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments were worth to visit too.
Before we left that incredible ‘island’ in the middle of the plains, we had the chance to travel through the Wind Cave National Park and meet the Fire Manager officer and his Fire Effects program supervisor; both explained the whole fire program and took us to visit the Cold Brook burn unit, a well known burn because of the alarm that the escape caused among the fire community in the area. In spite of that event, we could appreciate the really good effects that fire has had in grasses and fuel reduction, a great contribution to improve the area habitat.
GOING TO THE WEST
We left Rapid City north-west bound, in the middle of a strong snow storm. The weather looked much better to burn in Montana and we were able to admire the different landscapes and habitats during the long journey. We soon were captivated by the sagebrush smell/scent/blossom and how different those plains were.
In the also remote and beautiful Charles M. Russell NWR (MT), Mike Hill was waiting for us to take us to one of the refuge bunkhouses, sharing rooms and facilities with the rest of the members of the crew.
As members of a group of almost 50 people from different agencies, we were assigned to different squads and divisions of the burn planned for the following day. The Cow Camp unit was a historical beginning of a successful fire program that land managers want to implement in the refuge. A lot of people were paying attention to this burn and we witnessed and learned another great lesson in this trip. In spite of pressure, hesitation and wish to burn, the burn was cancelled because we were not accomplishing goals, showing a wise decision and professionalism of the burn boss.
Waiting for better weather conditions to burn, we moved to the west and stayed in Missoula for some days, visiting the Missoula Technology and Development Center, the Smoke Jumper base and the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, where we were lucky to take a tour through the facilities and receive a ‘Master Class’ in the office of one of the most important fire scientists in the world, Mark Finney, who showed some of the last findings in fire science; be ready for new terms in the next months!
Back in the east, we had time to visit and enjoy the Lewistown area (MT), where Michael N. Granger, the Fire Management Officer, arranged some media events and we were invited to give a talk explaining the Mediterranean ecosystem and fire reality and management in Spain and the main reasons and goals of us going to the States: to exchange knowledge and experiences among fire community members, in order to restore ‘the balance’ on the land with fire. We had the chance to show how thankful we feel for the experience, only described with an adjective: INCREDIBLE!!!
LEAVING THE STATES AND CONCLUSSIONS
‘Fire is Natural, plain and simple’, Granger said, and we all belong to the same family, so it is fair, as members of that fire family, to make all the possible efforts to ‘spread’ the news. The South Dakota TREX cancellation was a great opportunity to meet members of the same family, speaking the same language, who are going to help us to a better understanding of the meaning and role of fire in Nature.
Apart from the beautiful places we could enjoy, the operations we implemented, the acres we were able to burn, the lessons and the stories we learned, the most valuable and priceless ‘element’ of the whole month was the human aspect of it, the people we met, the professionals we shared all the experiences with.
It is good to name the institutions and agencies who made this possible, mainly The Nature Conservancy and The Fire Learning Network and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but those are just that, institutions and agencies; but inside those names there are a tremendous number of people dedicated and committed, people who live their lives with the sovereign duty, engagement and responsibility of taking care of Nature. Thank you to every single person who understand and feel life like this.
Data Summary – Table:
|1600 acres burned in 5 burn units.|
|4500 miles enjoyed through 4 states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana).|
|More than 30 hours of ‘classroom’ training and an enormous number of ‘hands-on’ knowledge.|
|Some of the institutions, whose members we worked together with: The Nature Conservancy – Fire Learning Network and The Nebraska Chapter, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, US National Park Service, Montana State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.|