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New western training center seeks to grow prescribed fire capacity

A firefighter holds a fuel canister as a prescribed fire burns in the background.
DOI/Neal Herbert
Bureau of Land Management
A Bureau of Land Management firefighter ignites areas of heavy, downed juniper jackpots during the 2019 Trout Springs Prescribed Burn in Owyhee County, Idaho.

Prescribed fire is an effective tool to make catastrophic wildfires less likely, and now federal land management agencies are expanding training for those important burns.

In a recent Forest Service strategy document, officials are blunt about the situation they face.

“The prescribed fire implementation environment continues to grow in complexity, whereas the ability of practitioners to practice and hone their expertise has lagged, particularly in the Western United States,” it reads.

But a new program - the Western Prescribed Fire Training Center - seeks to address that training gap. The first class is already burning and receiving training in Oklahoma. A National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center already exists in Tallahassee, Florida, where over 1 million acres were burned in 2021. The western center is conceived of as an expansion of that program.

Classrooms for training will be set up near prescribed fires in existing offices, or other locations, according to the strategy. Federal officials hope the effort will “increase the pace of prescribed fire training-to-qualification in the Western United States, provide trainees real-time experience in different fuel types and terrain, and ultimately increase national prescribed fire resource capacity.”

Additional sessions will be held this year in Boise, Flagstaff and elsewhere, according to Alex Robertson, the acting director of Fire and Aviation at the Forest Service’s D.C. office.

He said that increasing the amount of prescribed burning is all about taking advantage of the windows that Mother Nature provides.

“And if we're not nimble enough, if we're not prepared enough, if we're not skilled enough to take advantage of every window, we're not going to get more done,” he said.

Robertson said that doing the training at sites around the West will give trainees experience with different fuel types and “different politics around prescribed fire in different communities.”

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.

Hey everyone! I’m Murphy Woodhouse, Boise State Public Radio’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter.