University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students had an opportunity to learn different methods of starting prescribed fires, including the use of a helicopter to set a fire from the air in hard-to-reach locations. Instead of spending spring break basking on a beach, eight University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students spent a week managing fires alongside St. Johns River Water Management District land managers.
Trained in firefighting before their Florida visit, the students participated as District volunteers, learning the art of burning Florida’s combustible vegetation to reduce the threat of wildfire and mastering skills necessary to keep a prescribed fire under control. The students helped District staff conduct four prescribed fires on District lands, including a 3,000-acre burn at Seminole Ranch Conservation Area.
The mammoth scale of the District’s prescribed fires and firefighting equipment impressed Kristen Miller, a Forestry Recreation and Environmental Education major who is the daughter of Steve R. Miller (the District’s director of the Bureau of Operations-North).
“In Wisconsin, we’re normally burning three to four acres at a time, with the largest burns being 10 to 15 acres,” Miller says. “Our water supply is a trailer pulled by a pickup truck or water from a pond.”
Miller, following in the proverbial footsteps of her father, says she is impressed with how well the District’s crew worked with the students. “The cohesion of the crews literally blew my mind,” she says.
Fellow student Ashley Jones says she also noticed that the District enjoys a good working relationship with other agencies and organizations during prescribed burn operations. During two of the fires, the District was assisted by personnel and equipment from The Nature Conservancy.
Shelby Worel and the other college students gained hands-on experience in prescribed fire techniques, including this day when she worked with District staff using a drip torch to set a prescribed fire.
“It’s obvious that the agencies in Florida have good working relationships,” she says. “That’s not always the case in other parts of the country.”
The dynamics of a prescribed fire in Florida are nothing like those in Wisconsin, Jones adds.
“In Wisconsin, when things are green they don’t burn,” Jones says. “The most exciting part of being here was seeing all the new habitat types and fuel types. I’ve never been this far south before.”
Volunteer Shelby Worel echoed Jones’ sentiments.
“In Wisconsin, we usually use bulldozers during prescribed burns,” Worel says. “Here, we got to see an aerial ignition using helicopters and napalm. It’s really exciting. We were introduced to a whole new world to which we had never been exposed before.”
“This exchange was supported by the university because the fire season in Wisconsin traditionally lasts about three to four weeks in spring and another three to four weeks in the fall,” Steve Miller notes. “Sending the crew to Florida gave the students a concentrated dose of fire that helps broaden their knowledge and experience. At the same time the District received free manpower while helping to develop resource managers for the future.”