Ag sciences student completes prescribed fire experience at Fort Indiantown Gap

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Francis Alvaré, a Penn State forest ecosystem management major with a minor in military studies, assisted the National Guard's forestry department in a series of prescribed fires on training facilities as part of an independent study program in the spring of 2017.

Alvaré, a senior from Havertown, Pennsylvania, discovered the program by asking faculty in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management about opportunities to fulfill the independent study requirement for his major. Like many forestry enthusiasts, he enjoys spending time outdoors, and also had developed an interest in firefighting.

"I joke that I wanted to be a forestry major because it's like being a professional Boy Scout," he said. "My dad was a College of Agricultural Sciences student, and I had friends I could ask about the curriculum, which helped me decide what to major in."

Associate Professor of Forest Ecology Margot Kaye, who teaches Forest Fire Management and Ecology, and Brent Harding, a senior forester within the college, connected Alvaré with forest program managers at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Bureau of Environmental Management, Forest Management Section at Indiantown Gap. The organization is made up of a group of civilians who help the National Guard maintain its ranges and training lands, including ranges for tanks, artillery, long-range weaponry and aircraft weaponry.

By periodically conducting prescribed fires within "burn units," specific areas with distinct characteristics that burn in a certain way, the National Guard is able to prevent the start and spread of more serious fires on and around its training facilities.

"Our objective is to safely burn the areas they train on to keep the understory or grasses to a manageable level, so they don't interfere with sight lines, and to keep the fuel bed (the amount of flammable material in the form of grass, brush, timber and slash) to a minimum, so that if a tracer round shot from a weapon starts a fire, for example, they can contain it until they're done with their exercises and then put it out," Alvaré explained.

During these prescribed fires, the "burn boss" is in charge, assigning personnel to positions on a firing and a holding team. The firing team ignites designated areas with a drip torch, which dispenses a mixture of flaming fuel around the "line of black," the perimeter around the burn area that acts as a buffer zone to prevent the fire from escaping containment. The team then lights the head fire, the main fire that spreads quickly through the grass, leaf litter and other overgrowth.

Lighting fire with a drip torch

During a prescribed fire, the firing team ignites designated areas with a drip torch, which dispenses a mixture of flaming fuel around the "line of black," the perimeter around the burn area that acts as a buffer zone to prevent the fire from escaping containment. 

Image: Francis Alvaré

Throughout the burn, the holding team monitors the fire's progress and keeps it within the confines of the pre-planned area by wetting the perimeter and extinguishing any sparks, flame or smoldering areas as necessary. If the burn goes as planned, the head fire burns inward until it uses up the allotted fuel bed and is easily put out. When that happens, both teams contribute to the "mop up" effort, conducting a thorough sweep of the burn unit to ensure the fire is completely out.

During his independent study, Alvaré was able to participate on both the firing and holding teams. "I've been able to experience both sides, which is fantastic, because in this internship, that's what I wanted. I wanted a hands-on experience being on a fire crew and using prescribed fire," he said. "Luckily in Pennsylvania, we don't have crazy fires. It's not to say we won't ever have a Gatlinburg, Tennessee-type incident, but as of now, our primary fire use is prescribed fire. I wanted to study exactly how we make that happen."

Putting out a prescribed fire

The holding team monitors a prescribed fire's progress and keeps it within the confines of the pre-planned area by wetting the perimeter and extinguishing any sparks, flame or smoldering areas.

Image: Francis Alvaré

This spring, Alvaré was able to participate in four burns. In March, his team used gravel roads and hard lines as fire breaks around a sniper range to reduce grass growth and kill woody plants to maintain line-of-sight. In April, one burn was conducted on the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility, which contains simulated woodland, an urban combat scenario, and area of birch and scrub oak overgrowth. The third burn took place in an area with ongoing invasive species issues, and the teams burned it to create open areas in the understory of the wooded area and to aid in the establishment of native grass species. During the final, large-scale burn, a helicopter was used to ignite the area to manage fuels on and surrounding an artillery firing point.

For each burn, participants are given at least 24 hours' notice of the plan and schedule. These plans are weather-dependent, with factors like temperature, wind and precipitation accounted for. Along with the planned burns, Alvaré could also have been called to help with any wildfires the Forest Management Section could not contain within a two-hour period. His professors have been understanding and flexible when he needed to miss classes for what has truly been an invaluable learning opportunity, he said.

"I get course credit for fighting fires — it doesn't get much cooler than that!" Alvaré said.

As part of the experience, Alvaré had the opportunity to take photos and shoot video for an end-of-semester media project about his independent study.

Prescribed fire at Fort Indiantown Gap

A prescribed fire burning at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Image: Francis Alvaré

In addition to his coursework, he is a Penn State cheerleader, serves as an emergency medical technician for the University Ambulance Service, and is active in THON and recreational sports.

"I love this school, so I try to get involved as much as possible," he said.

After graduating is December 2017, Alvaré will join the Navy and hopes to be admitted to flight school. After his time in the Navy, he would like to fly for a forestry or fire agency controlling forest fires in the western United States.

Last Updated June 12, 2017