CLEMSON — Clemson University is holding students’ feet to the fire – literally – as it prepares them to take leadership roles in one of the most dangerous and underserved aspects in the forestry industry.

Firefighters set a control burn.

Clemson students learn the importance of teamwork when fighting fires.
Image Credit: College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences

Fire Tigers is a 15-member group of Clemson forestry and wildlife students who volunteer to assist the U.S. Forest Service with prescribed burns and fighting wildfires in the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.

Prescribed burning uses fire to control pest insects and diseases, provide forage, improve habitats for wildlife and put nutrients back into the soil. It also promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants and eliminates fuel that could lead to catastrophic wildfires later. The Fire Tiger program gives students the opportunity to take basic wildland training courses, something most other college students won’t receive until they enter the workforce.

“Students in the Fire Tigers program get all of their training through U.S. Forest Service standards,” said Helen Mohr, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service who helps lead the group, adding they hope to work with the South Carolina Forestry Commission to conduct prescribed fires in the future. “As a Fire Tiger, each student has opportunities to go out and help with Forest Service prescribed fires and Forest Service wildfires.

“These students are learning from the same materials U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters are given,” she said. “By adhering to those national standards, they’re officially certified to work anywhere in the country.”

Creating the Fire Tigers

The Fire Tigers group was formed with three main goals in mind, Mohr said. The first is to increase capacity for the Ranger District on operational and fire prep days.

“The Andrew Pickens Ranger District has a very small crew but burns a large portion of the forest each year,” said Mohr, who graduated from Clemson with a bachelor’s degree in forest resource management in 1997 and a master’s degree in forest resource management in 2002. “With added volunteers, more work can get done and helping the district crew also gives these young people an opportunity to learn about fire.”

The second goal is to create opportunities for fire researchers and managers to interact with the students. That happens at two weeklong fire camps during the spring and fall semesters.

“These interactions help the students understand how to use fire research to make management decisions on the ground,” Mohr said. “This is key in building effective burn programs across the United States.”

The final goal is to help Clemson University recruit quality students and develop their knowledge of fire as an effective management tool. Mohr said learning about fire firsthand during their undergraduate programs will give them more knowledge and a competitive advantage when they enter the workforce.

Mohr hopes the Fire Tigers will someday become a self-sufficient firefighting crew that can travel the country and help extinguish some of the most threatening wildfires.

“These students are the future of firefighting and to bring them up in fire during their undergraduate studies is an exciting opportunity to help shape the future of the U.S. Forest Service workforce,” Mohr said.

Location, location, location

Mohr said Clemson University’s close proximity to the Appalachian Mountains gives the Fire Tigers an edge when it comes to learning about fire.

“We’re very lucky at Clemson to be situated just 30 minutes from Sumter National Forest,” Mohr said. “This gives these students an opportunity to quickly be in a Forest Service truck with their equipment on the way to a fire. That is unique in itself because not every university that has a program similar to this has that opportunity.”

Fire Tigers also get to network with forestry professionals.

“Freshmen and sophomores who enter in to this program immediately get plugged in to this great network of professionals,” said Don Hagan, a Clemson assistant professor of forest ecology. “When it comes time to apply for a job later down the road maybe with one of these agencies, those professionals will be able to vouch for the quality of those students because they’ve been out in the field with them on the fire line and know they can do the job.”

The Fire Tigers program also benefits the Forest Service, said Wes Bentley, assistant fire management officer for the Andrew Pickens District.

“The Fire Tigers is a hands-on recruitment tool for the agency to gain future employees with a Natural Resources Management mindset,” he said. “The way we currently have the program structured creates opportunities for our current employees to further their experience in leadership and mentoring roles adding a layer of successional planning to our current organization.”

Michael Weeks, a forester for the South Carolina Forestry Commission who graduated from Clemson with a degree in forest resource management in 2004, agrees.

“I think one of the biggest things with this is it gives the students a good, solid foundation to build from,” Weeks said. “If the Fire Tigers had been around when I was in school, I definitely would’ve taken part. It’s an opportunity to learn valuable skills. It’s also an opportunity to get a summer job — go out West and fight wildfires — make some money and get some experience.”

Prescribed fire research

Fire Tiger Matthew Vaughan recently assisted with a prescribed burn in the Moss Mill Unit of the Sumter National Forest. Vaughan is a Clemson doctoral student from Blacksburg, Virginia. His studies focus on forest resources with an emphasis in fire ecology.

Vaughan also participated in a prescribed burning research project led by Hagan that involves comparing the forest management success of dormant-season burns to growing-season burns. Growing-season burns are not traditionally applied to forests in the Appalachian Mountains and there are not a lot of data on their effectiveness.

“This is one of the first growing-season burns in the southern Appalachians where we get to compare the differences between dormant-season and growing-season burns,” Vaughan said. “Traditionally, a lot of prescribed burns are done during the dormant season. But with this burn, done during the early growing season, we’re going to get to put some fire on the ground. We’re going to measure fire behavior and we’re going to come back after the burn and compare (post-fire changes in vegetation).”

The Fire Tigers have conducted five burns for the study — three dormant burns and two growing season burns — covering 4,000 acres in South Carolina and Georgia. Vaughan and other students are collecting and analyzing data on these burns and soon will be able to share what they’ve found.

It’s experiences such as this that make Caroline Sharpe, a freshman wildlife and fisheries biology major from Hilda, believe she and other Fire Tigers will benefit when it comes to time to apply for jobs.

“It really gives you a leg up, especially when you’re applying for jobs, to already be certified,” said Sharpe, a wildlife and fisheries biology major. “If you’re certified, they won’t have to train you. They won’t have to send you to school. You have the experience and you’re ready to go.”

The U.S. Forest Service and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists also sponsor the Fire Tigers by helping with training and providing $12,000 for the required personal protective equipment needed to fight fires.

The Fire Tigers were instrumental in forming an official student chapter of the Association for Fire Ecology, which will allow the group to receive funding for additional fire gear. The chapter received a grant to fund an Appalachian fire workshop which featured speakers from the Nature Conservancy and Charles Lafon, a renowned fire scientist from Texas A&M University.

The Fire Tigers will be accepting new members each year. Freshmen and sophomore students are encouraged to apply. Members remain in the group until they graduate.

For more information about the Fire Tigers, contact Helen Mohr at hmohr@fs.fed.us.

Hagan said the Fire Tigers organization is part of a broader push to integrate fire into Clemson’s undergraduate program.

“Students are learning about fire in lots of their classes,” Hagan said. “Some topics they are learning include dendrology, forest ecology, forest communities and silviculture. There also are undergraduate research opportunities in fire, such as in the Appalachian Fire Ecology Creative Inquiry project. I encourage anyone who has an interest in any of these topics to contact me for more information.”

Hagan can be contacted at dhagan@clemson.edu.

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Videos produced by Kayla Murphy

The Joint Fire Science Program funded this project under Grant No. L16AC00192. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.