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Jan. 8, 2020

New forestry class fights fire with fire

It’s no secret that wildfires continue to plague parts of the U.S. and abroad where rain and moisture are scarce and arid conditions are the norm. But what about areas that tend to be wet and dark?

Australia's wildfires have ravaged over seven million hectares of land, claimed the the lives of more than 20 people and an estimated 800 million animals have perished.

California's Mediterranean climate continues to prove that wildfire does not disciminate; the state will burn whether winters are wet or dry. The Kincade Fire in Sonoma, California has burned over 76,000 acres of land since late October, which is more than twice the size of San Francisco.

These unprecedented fires are in need of attention and care, and Michigan State University’s Department of Forestry is taking the lead in helping students better understand how to manage wildfires.

FOR 491 is now a 3 credit lab focused on using prescribed fire to manage native ecosystems and offered during fall semesters. The idea for the course, which debuted last fall, took root when Andy Vander Yacht, an academic specialist in the Department of Forestry and manager of the forest ecology laboratory, joined MSU two years ago.

Prescribed fire is the science and art of applying fire under predetermined weather and forest conditions to accomplish specific management objectives.

The goal is to prepare students to face the growing wildland fire issues across the country, including underrepresented issues such as mesophication in the eastern United States. Mesophication occurs when ecosystems become darker, wetter and more inflammable.

This phenomenon has negative implications for wildlife and plant species. For example, oak trees are not regenerating in dark and wet forests in eastern states, including Michigan. This problem is shifting forests to be dominated by fire-sensitive and shade-tolerant trees.

To educate students about these growing ecological problems, Vander Yacht’s course pairs online material with all-day field tours around Michigan where fire is used as a management tool.

Previously, MSU offered FOR 215, a two-weekend course that provided opportunities to become certified to perform wildland firefighting tasks all over the country. Now students have access to an improved curriculum along with this certification.

This class was able to take flight when the curriculum committee within the forestry department recognized a need to expose forestry students to the topic more broadly.

“When I arrived in January of 2018, I expressed concern with my 100% research appointment and the department head, Rich Kobe, recognized my research and applied background could be of use in teaching a more advanced course in fire ecology and management,” said Vander Yacht.

The course consists of seven field-tours where students interact with fire experts across the state and across several agencies such as local land conservancies, military bases, corporations, parks and MSU researchers and ecologists.

During field-tours, students tour sites where fire management was used, use associated equipment, participate in interactive activities and attend field lectures from the experts.

To conclude the course and utilize their new skills, students conducted a prescribed burn at the Tree Research Center south of campus. In future years, students may conduct burns with Michigan Department of Natural Resources, local contractors and on military bases, or wherever an opportunity arises.

Forestry student Zachary Jewison participated in the course and conducted the prescribed burn under Vander Yacht.

“The prescribed burn was my favorite part of the course followed by the field tours,” said Jewison. “Overall, this course left me feeling like an expert in fire management and greatly increased my appreciation for the importance of fire in the world. I'd bet it would be very difficult to find another course quite like this one at MSU.”