Land & Environment

Sizzlin' Spring Break: USU Fire Club Volunteers on Ozark Prescribed Fire Project

By Lael Gilbert |

Members of the USU Fire Club trained for and participated in a prescribed fire restoration project on the Pioneer Forest near the Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, over spring break.

While some students headed to sunny beaches or sandstone trails for the recent spring break, a few students from the Quinney College of Natural Resources chose a different kind of break experience — they traveled halfway across the country to the short-leaf pine forests of the Missouri Ozarks to set things on fire.

The student chapter of the Association for Fire Ecology (USU Fire Club) participated in a prescribed fire restoration project on the privately owned Pioneer Forest near the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. The goal of the trip, according to Jacob Lancaster, president of the USU Fire Club, was to break out of the theoretical learning in the field of fire and get hands-on experience on an actual project.

Lancaster isn’t new to fire; he has experience working on wilderness fire suppression crews, so the smoke and flame on this project weren’t new to him. But starting fires on purpose? That was a bit unfamiliar.

“Here in the West you hear mostly about fire in terms of fuels management — getting rid of wood so that forest fires don’t burn out of control. But for this project the whole goal was to benefit the ecology of the area,” he said. “That was cool to see, and a new perspective.”

Managers of forests use intentionally set, low-intensity burns called prescribed fire to restore native species and for other management goals. In this case, the goal was to benefit native short leaf pine trees. Seeds from that tree require bare soil, clear of debris and leaves, to germinate. That’s tough to find in a forest that includes oak and hickory species that deposit leaf litter onto the forest floor each season.

Natural fires had moved across this particular type of landscape every 2-18 years historically, but that pattern has been interrupted over the last century through fire suppression efforts. Managers on the Pioneer Forest are working to reintroduce the benefits of more frequent fire in a controllable way.

“We had to wait for very particular environmental conditions,” said Sarah Kapel, club treasurer and graduate student working in the QCNR Fire Ecology laboratory. “The team had to consider moisture, temperature and humidity. We spent a lot of time working through logistics and safety. We were lucky that everything came together during the time we were there.”

“It seemed intimidating before we actually did it,” Kapel said. “But when it came down to it, the whole thing was much safer than you might imagine. We were mostly dealing with six-inch flame lengths, something that you could easily step over.”

A lot of preparation goes into a prescribed burn project. The group spent considerable time helping a local crew from the L-A-D Foundation moving debris, clearing snags and bucking downed trees. They ended up helping to burn almost 350 acres of woodland and to personally ignite more than 7 miles of drip-torch line.

“For me personally, having hands-on experience with fire gave me more confidence about studying fire ecology,” Kapel said. “Meeting the ecologists who use fire as a tool and watching them actually doing it made the whole thing more based in reality for me.”

The USU Fire Club supports undergraduate and graduate students interested in fire and forest ecology, and it always welcomes new members. The trip was sponsored by the L-A-D Foundation, QCNR, and the Department of Wildland Resources.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Larissa Yocom
Assistant Professor
Department of Wildland Resources


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