Two people in yellow protective suits standing in a recently burned meadow.

A Beneficial Burn Experience

By Samantha Paine, on

At Longwood, we steward our natural areas using strategies based on an understanding of ecosystems. One such strategy is the use of prescribed fire, practiced within the lens of fire ecology and based on the recognition that fire operates as an essential part of some ecosystems. Our meadows, which are home to fire-adapted native prairie plants, are one such ecosystem. Prescribed burns, which occur in such locations as our Meadow Garden, are a way in which we can maintain the meadow’s health by rejuvenating its native plant communities and suppressing woody vegetation that would otherwise quickly overrun it. It’s a highly technical process that can only be practiced by those who have been successfully trained and have earned their Firefighter Type 2 (FFT2) certification from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). As a Professional Horticulture Program student at Longwood, I share my experience becoming certified and taking part in a prescribed burn—and all this experience has meant to me. 

While taking on the Professional Horticulture Program, one is continually presented with opportunities for professional development and personal growth. I remember our first meeting about learning about the FFT2 certification with the goal of participating in one of Longwood’s in-house prescribed fires. Most years, a section of the Meadow Garden undergoes a prescribed burn treatment, a process that Longwood shares as an opportunity with students to further our education and offer opportunities for earning certifications we can take with us after our time at Longwood. 

As such, Longwood’s Soils and Compost Manager Erik Stefferud—who is also the leader of Longwood’s prescribed fire training program, a Chester County forest fire warden, first responder, and a wildland firefighter—invites Longwood students and interns to consider earning their certification and participating in the program as members of the burn crew. 

To many, this process is an attractive one. I myself come from a family full of firefighters, and the opportunity to learn how to use and control fire for the sake of ecological benefit was fascinating. But not everyone has such a stake in the program. For some, it is simply a new and exciting experience, an opportunity worth taking advantage of. For others, it’s a certification they hope to take forward and use even after their time at Longwood comes to a close. And for those who don’t participate, it’s simply not something they can fit into their busy schedule. But, for those who do take the dive, the process is rewarding, on a personal and an educational level.

Two people in fire gear looking at a fire in a meadow.

Longwood Soils and Compost Manager Erik Stefferud and Professional Horticulture Student Samantha Paine monitor an area for burn efficacy. Photo by Hattie Moore.

Stefferud presents about the Longwood burn program in the fall, with the following spring burn window serving as the goal. Between those points in time, students and interns commit themselves to taking online training modules in their spare time, earning the necessary certificates and learning the ins and outs of prescribed burn safety. The first portion of the certification process consists of self-guided, online modules focused on such topics as fire behavior, safety procedures, burn crew hierarchy, team responsibilities, tools and equipment, and more. 

After completion of the online component, participants are able to move on to the in-person field exercise and work capacity test as the final steps in earning their FFT2 certificate. At Longwood, with the guidance of Stefferud and the Land Stewardship and Ecology team, each person has the opportunity to experience the processes of creating a fire line to contain prescribed fire, operating water tanks and vehicles, hooking up to a fire hydrant, igniting grasses with a drip torch, and controlling and smothering burning material. Along the way, you suit up in full gear–Nomex coveralls, helmets, hoods, safety glasses, leather gloves—as well as learn how to deploy and secure a fire shelter. With each and every element and hour of the certification process, it’s made abundantly clear: we are all looking out for each other’s safety at all times, and everyone needs to be as informed as possible throughout the burn.

A fire team in yellow protective gear assembled for a group photo.

Longwood’s 2024 prescribed burn team, made up of staff, interns, and students. Photo provided by Samantha Paine.

The field exercise prepares you for the physicality of burn day and helps you decide what role you may wish to take during the process. Personally, I chose to be a part of the ignition crew, as this position is directly responsible for spreading the flame. Once you’ve finished the field training and work capacity test with a minimum requirement of completing a 1 mile walk in under 15 minutes at a fast-walk pace, all that’s left is to wait patiently for the burn window to open. Stefferud kept us informed about weather conditions and when we might have the opportunity, but ultimately, those conditions can change on an hourly basis. The day before the projected burn, we were given the thumbs up, and prepared accordingly. 

Burn day is where all of your hard work pays off. If you’ve paid attention and are prepared, participating in the meadow burn is fun, safe, and rewarding. As a team, you all review your safety procedures, escape routes and safety zones, the site and weather conditions, and where everyone will be stationed. From this point forward, you are entrusted to maintain your position, keep eyes on the fire and those around you at all times, and communicate clearly and effectively. With everyone working as a unit, the burn is continually controlled, and you get to see your hours of education and training in action. Once the burn is complete, the squad gathers to debrief and review the day’s accomplishments and observations, giving praise where it is due and discussing moments where things could have improved.

A fire team in yellow protective gear assembled in a circle while in an outdoor field.

The burn team participates in an after-action review following the prescribed burn. Photo by Lea Johnson.

This specific experience may be singular to Longwood, but it has a much greater reach in horticulture, conservation, forestry, and ecology at large. Prescribed burns are essential all over the world, and fire ecology is important to many ecosystems. Burns are necessary for maintaining healthy succession patterns–in our meadow specifically, it helps to maintain native dominance and control invasive species, prevent the growth of woody plants and trees that would naturally progress to forest, and maintain important habitats that are increasingly rare in the region. Through our efforts and education, we can carry this information forward and help educate the public about the essential nature of fire, and potentially aid in further controlled burns and wildfire fighting efforts. 

A number of Longwood students have earned their certification at Longwood and have then used their qualification elsewhere, from joining a fire crew to fight wildfires in Idaho, to using certifications to help other organizations support their own burns, to using such training while working on a trail crew in Utah. “Inviting our students to become part of this process is a way in which we can give them hands-on education and certification,” shares Stefferud. “The work we are doing with prescribed fire is extremely valuable, not least of all within the scope of educating the public of the role that fire can play on the landscape and in ecological restoration here at Longwood and beyond.” 

Before their time at Longwood, former Land Stewardship and Ecology Intern Maya Sarkar had assisted with prescribed burns as part of ecological research projects. “Fire holds an important place in the ecosystems I grew up around—oak savannas and prairies—and in the culture I grew up with,” shares Sarkar. “I’ve appreciated its importance from multiple aspects, which put me on the path to appreciating and working with prescribed burns themselves.” During their Longwood internship, Sarkar earned their certification and joined the burn crew for the spring 2022 Meadow Garden burn. Since their tenure as a Longwood intern, Sarkar has assisted with burning hundreds of acres of oak savannah and grasslands in Minnesota for ecological research projects. “I’ve also used the knowledge I gained from my certification and burn experience at Longwood to educate folks on prescribed fire and its importance to ecological systems,” shares Sarkar.

A person managing a meadow burn at Longwood Gardens.

Former Land Stewardship and Ecology Intern Maya Sarkar during a previous burn at Longwood. Photo by Hank Davis.

Similar to Sarkar, former Intern Kevin Popowich came to Longwood with prescribed burn experience during his time as the Natural Lands Intern at Mt. Cuba Center. “I wanted to continue participating in prescribed burns to build out my experience and offer my insights on this land stewardship practice coming from another entity,” shares Popowich. During his time at Longwood, Popowich deepened his understanding of fire ecology to then apply it during a wildland fire deployment to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests during his Longwood internship. “My involvement in Longwood’s burn program allowed me to feel more confident and prepared for transferring my trainings and experience to fighting wildfires,” shares Popowich.

A person in yellow fire gear standing in a forest smiling at the camera.

Former Longwood Intern Kevin Popowich during his deployment to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Photo by Erik Stefferud.

Today, Popowich works for the US Environmental Protection Agency as an Ecological Risk Assessor. However, he utilizes his wildland firefighting training to volunteer with the Response Support Corps, which assists the agency’s existing emergency response staff in responding to disasters or emergencies within the country. “Prescribed fire should be seen as a tool, amongst many others, that land stewards can utilize responsibly in suitable landscapes,” shares Popowich. 

As for me, I hope to participate in future burns myself, adding to those who have gone through this process and have used their certifications outside of Longwood as well. There is nothing more gratifying than putting your knowledge to good use, especially when that good use is on behalf of conservation.

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