A year after becoming the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s first Forester for the Future Scholarship winner, Shylee Head has shown that she can take the heat.

Head, of Mena, and 16 other students were on the front lines of UAM’s fire management course prescribed burning exercises on 20 acres of the West Block Forest, a portion of the university’s forestland that adjoins the campus. The class spent the semester planning the safest and most productive way to conduct the burn.

“We had to come in and look at where and what we are burning,” Head said. “The challenge in our group is that we had several big trees down that we couldn’t burn. It would have made the fire way too hot, and too big of a fire to control, so we had to plan around that. We studied lots of weather precautions.”

Head grew up on forestland, spending time with her dad on land primarily used for hunting.

“I’ve never been on a controlled burn before,” she said. “I was at the ignition point. But for this fire, I moved further up to where they started the head fire. It was really, really hot. I was backing up far as I could.”

The freshman said it is the most challenging course of her academic career.

“It worked out really nice,” she said. “I got to burn a forest, and did it safely and successfully.”

Head is attending UAM on the Foresters for the Future scholarship, a generous opportunity to study hands-on forestry. The scholarship is funded by the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. Applications for this year’s recipient are being taken through June 15.

Students interested in the scholarship can find more information on the UAM website.

Months of planning

The class began planning the burn in the classroom in January, trying to calculate all the factors that go into a prescribed burn. While setting fire in a forest may seem destructive, prescribed burns are a management tool that emulates the fires that are naturally a part of forest ecosystems. It helps clear fuel such as leaf litter and clear out underbrush, allowing seeds to produce new generations of trees.

“You don’t want smoke heading to smoke-sensitive areas like schools and hospitals,” Head said, as she and her classmates studied area elevation levels, fuels on the land including deadwood and pine needles, as well as temperature, humidity, and wind.

Leading the classroom charge is UAM associate professor of forest health, Dr. Mohammad Bataineh.

Dr. Bataineh said fire is a core course in the curriculum. It is taught every spring spring semester and culminates most years with a prescribed burn. “What we aim to do with the class is offer hands-on experience as much as possible, where the students gain confidence in applying fire on the landscape,” he said.

Fire management is used in wildlife habitat, timber resources management, and used in restoration ecology. “Fire is the building block that we use to teach natural resource management at this college,” said Dr. Bataineh.

Divide and conquer

The 20-acre forest targeted for the fire was composed of loblolly pines. The block was divided into four units, and each unit was assigned to a group of five or six students.

“The goal of the exercise is to implement the fire plan they have written,” Bataineh said. “They are going to practice igniting and implementing the fire plan. They will decide on the fire technique given the weather conditions and site conditions that we have.”.

The students, clad in bright yellow fire-resistant Nomex, helmets, and other safety equipment, chose to burn in ring pattern, using drip torches for ignition. Their burn was expected to reduce fuel on the block by a third.

Firebreaks

Before the first flame is ignited, UAM forest manager Bobby Webb, works with students to establish fire breaks to keep the fire contained. The fire breaks were created back in the early 90s, Webb said.

“My student workers and I over the period of a few days install the fire break around the burn area perimeter and then subdivide the area for a little better control in case something happens,” he said.

The crew uses a bulldozer to comb the brush and needles off the firebreak to expose the soil to help contain the fire within the targeted forest area.

The fire proved to be a good teacher.

“Communication is a big part of everything,” said Ethan Lum, a junior was also on the front lines. “We were a little bit lacking on that at first. We also learned which particular fire pattern to choose for the area.”

Assistant Professor Elena Rubino, who specializes in human dimensions of wildlife and natural resources communications, was on site to witness the prescribed burn. She studies the interaction between people and events such as these.

“There is slowly some recognition that fire is important,” Rubino said. “Smokey [the Bear] did a great job promoting this idea that fires are bad and to put them out when you see them. Here’s a great example of a prescribed fire, why it should be here, and how it’s controlled. It’s an activity we like to see.”
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This particular stand had been burned four or five years ago. Nearly every tree has burn scars, but the trees remain healthy, according to Bataineh.

“Each tree is growing and has a healthy crown,” he said. “These trees have been maintained and [have been] growing 60 to 70 years. The fires we are conducting underneath are not killing trees by any means. The whole point of the burn is to make the forest healthier.”