The new science specialty is absolutely fire – the Woodcutter

By: Griffin Mancuso and Emma Wilson

Firefighting policies and climate change have led to widespread wildfires in Northern California. Forests need experts who can understand the power of fire and its beneficial effects and guide them to sustainable practices. Cal Poly Humboldt’s polytechnic transformation has led to a new addition to the Department of Forestry, Fire and Rangeland to address this need: Applied Fire Science and Management, B.S.

The major explores multiple disciplines and perspectives on fire management, including local indigenous knowledge and practices. Students will learn about prescribed burns, how fire exclusion policies have affected forests and how to use fire to promote biodiversity.

This major can lead to careers in fire ecology, fire services, prescribed burning organizations, and more. Fire science students can also look forward to numerous summer jobs and internships available to them.

However, students who are majoring in applied fire science are not eligible to take the California state registered professional forester exam.

As of the start of the fall 2023 semester, Erin Kelly is Cal Poly Humboldt’s Department of Wildfire and Land Management. She highlighted the high demand for foresters and fire ecologists in California.

“Employers are looking for natural resource managers, people who can apply their scientific knowledge on the ground, and also people who can educate others about things like fire management,” Kelly said. “So we’re really able to address the needs of California in terms of land management, and I think that’s a really great thing.”

Fundamentals of Fuel and Fire and Fire Ecology existed before the new Fire Science major, but Fire Behavior and Effects and Fire Weather were made separate classes this semester. In addition, an applied fire apprenticeship class will be available.

Jeffrey Kane is a faculty member in the Department of Forestry and has served as a professor at Cal Poly Humboldt for 12 years. He described the possible careers that students can explore with the internship program.

“Most people are going to work for the Forest Service, or they’re going to fight fires, or they’re going to do prescribed burning fuel management stuff, or some are going to work for CalFire,” Kane said. “Others have worked for non-profits involved in fuels management or prescribed burning … it’s basically ‘Get out there, get some experience.'”

David Green, a professor who has studied plant regeneration for several decades, teaches the fire ecology class. Students in fire science classes can expect to go on field trips that allow for hands-on learning and exploration of the various aspects of the field. Applied Fire and Policy students will have the opportunity to participate in prescribed burns.

Photo by Griffin Mancuso. David Green describing the ability of the germinating oak tree to reach mineral soil beneath the leaf layers.

“There are a lot of tribes around that don’t have the capacity to manage their own burning. Some like Karuk and Yurok can, but others like Bear River — they just don’t have anybody, so they often invite us to come up and do one for them,” Green said. “Jeff [Kane’s] happy to go do it because he wants the students to get as much training as possible because California is starting a prescribed burn campaign.

Mykie Root, a freshman forestry major with a wildland fire management major, enjoys the hands-on approach and field trips in their fire science courses compared to reading textbooks in high school.

“To come here and be able to go on these field trips and be able to actually, you know, get into things and have your hands and actually be able to see the trees, you know, take apart the bark, be able to look at all the rings individually and count them,” said Ruth. “It’s a lot easier to learn when you’re actually out than in a classroom, which I prefer. I don’t like being in the classroom. This annoys me.

Recently, fire ecology students visited the 2022 Six Rivers Wildfire to document the area’s germinating conifers and pine cones that have emerged since the fire. Grayson Voorhees, a freshman majoring in forestry with a minor in fire ecology, took on the task of climbing a steep slope to collect data.

“Initially we were trying to document the distance from the road to the first green tree to measure the density of the fire, like how far up it spread, and it was roughly 150 meters,” Voorhes said. “And that also spread along the transect line, and along the transect we counted germinating jack pine species.”

Applied fire science faculty and students hope to destigmatize fire, promote sustainable fire management practices, and combat anti-fire attitudes and policies.

Ruth explained how banning prescribed burns entirely allows leaves to accumulate and destroy seeds, leading to deforestation.

“When there are fires and you actively get rid of all the bad, dead leaves and things that just pile up and pile up, leaving, you know, the plants to be able to grow,” Ruth said. “Fires will come through, burn everything, and there will be wonderful plant seed beds that will just be able to spring up and come back.” So fires are really good for us. They’re actually really good for forests, and we need them.”

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