Reflections from the Montana Fire Continuum Conference

In June 2018, Deb Sparkes travelled to Missoula, Montana to represent the Centre of Excellence at Prescribed Burning (CoE) at the Fire Continuum Conference. Sparkes reflected on the strengths of the CoE’s collaborative model, and opportunities for further growth.

Aldo Leopold had it half right when he defined conservation as the “slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.” It is also the slow unfolding of new relationships between people. Similarly, prescribed burning emerges both from ecological and human imperatives; conservation of the land, and reduction of risk to life and property.

The National Burning Project (NBP) sought to help prescribed burning practitioners balance these often-competing objectives. As well as a range of useful products, the NBP began to facilitate conversations between staff of different agencies with an enthusiasm for sharing knowledge and experience – the unfolding of new relationships.

The Centre of Excellence for Prescribed Burning (CoE) aims to build on this enthusiasm, cementing those relationships. We were honoured to present at the Fire Continuum conference; an opportunity to network and connect with kindred spirits from over twenty different countries. We hoped the principles and guidelines of the NBP would gain international recognition, and that the CoE would observe collaborative operating models demonstrated by other agencies.

Navigating a cohesive strategy is more complex in the United States, where the population and geographical size is far greater and federal agencies have large tracts of land in their tenure. Fire management is guided by the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy, and agencies with a role in prescribed burning abide by formal and informal relationships covered by Memorandums of Understanding and both cooperative and participatory agreements. Governance ranges from prescribed fire councils to fire-adapted community groups and regional prescribed fire consortiums.

Prescribed fire in the United States meets with mixed reactions from agencies and the community; there is a reluctance to put in the landscape without legal protection. There are however many researchers in the United States studying prescribed fire and developing instrumentation to measure its effects. There was great interest shown in the NBP products, and acknowledgement of the work undertaken to achieve national positions and principles.

The CoE’s closest American parallel is the Southern Fire Exchange, from the south-east, where prescribed fire is most encouraged and community engagement is strong. This organisation identified webinars as an effective tool for engagement.

Areas of interest from the conference include:

  • the approach to engagement modelled by the Southern Fire Exchange
  • intergradation of research and operations illustrated at the conference field trip
  • the emerging science of smoke ecology and how pathogens are transported.

The conference was a valuable networking opportunity for the Centre of Excellence. We’re confident we have developed an effective and sustainable model, and look forward to further opportunities to share learning nationally and internationally