Spring break! Time to hit the beach, go fishing, catch up on sleep or enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, for twelve wildland fire students from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point (UWSP), a week of prescribed burning in the Southeast was the hottest ticket around.
With their fire gear packed tightly all around them, the (Stevens Point) “Pointers” piled into a few utility vehicles and vans and set their GPS for South Carolina. Even their furry mascot — a blue-eyed, hefty pup named Ash — found a way to huddle in with the pack.
They would soon meet up with one of their primary trainers and mentors, Johnny Stowe, SCDNR’s representative to the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council and certified wildlife biologist and forester. He’s known to many around these parts as the SCDNR’s “fire man,” and he’s trained countless colleagues, private landowners, land managers and interns how to properly apply fire in natural areas — generating new life and helping wildlife flourish.
For years, Stowe’s “Share the Flame” mantra has resonated across the miles to the Pointers who are intently studying wildland fire, and they relish the chance to “burn in the Southland with Johnny” and discuss ecological philosophy with him. Stowe’s masters degree centered on “Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic: Implications for Hunting,” and Leopold’s work informs and inspires his work at SCDNR.
Stowe proudly points out that the group of Wisconsin students comes from the “land of Leopold,” referencing Aldo Leopold’s co-founding of the field of wildlife ecology and management and his famous land ethic at the University of Wisconsin. Herbert L. Stoddard, Leopold’s co-founder, was also the first modern fire scientist. In the 1920s, Mr. Stoddard discovered the vital role of fire in the life history of bobwhite quail, through his work at Tall Timber Research Station. Leopold and Stoddard were friends, and coincidentally, today the recent, former director of Fire Science at Tall Timbers is Dr. Ron Masters, who heads up the wildland fire science program at the UWSP!
Grounded in Leopold’s philosophies and teachings in wildlife ecology, the twelve Pointers worked with Stowe to gain experience with the applications of fire in the pine savannas of the Southland. And along the way they discussed strategies, tactics, methods and equipment — new and old. They also talked about the culture of fire and shared their stories.
The young crew of “fire lighters” trekked through Congaree National Park during the final hours of their spring break. Walking quietly alongside Stowe, they looked up in admiration at the gentle giants of the forest — massive cypress and pine trees anchored in the bottomland soil by their sturdy trunks and intricate root systems.
At the end of the Congaree loop, the group reassembled at the Harry Hampton Visitors Center. They were starting to get hungry and would soon be treated to some good eats — southern barbecue, collards and cornbread sponsored by the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund. Their spring break contributions — the prescribed burns that would benefit bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers and other wildlife — are much appreciated by the Hampton Wildlife Fund, the SCDNR and the native species of South Carolina.
Front row (from left): Ethan Robers, Paul Priestley, Ash(dog), Jacob Barkalow, George Jensen, Andrew Seifried, Korey Badeau, SCDNR wildlife biologist and forester Johnny Stowe and retired SCDNR wildlife biologist John Cely. Back row (from left): Sam Lindblad, Cori Semler, McKenna Hammons, Michael Scharenbrock, Kelley Harkins
Resting for a moment at the conclusion of their spring break trip to South Carolina, the group took a few minutes to share their stories:
Ethan Robers: I’m from Southeastern Wisconsin … a little town called Burlington. I’ve been interested in fire since I was a kid. My parents were really big on us taking trips to state parks and national parks. I’ve been fortunate to travel around the country to see a lot of different places. The University of Wisconsin Stevens Point is an amazing college for anything natural-resources related. I went in not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and then a friend asked me to come along with him to look at the effects of fire on an ecosystem. I was hooked at once. We’re constantly learning and always educating others . . . and we’re taking back with us things we’ve learned. It’s awe-inspiring to come down here and burn on the SCDNR’s heritage preserves, to be part of restoring bobwhite quail on private lands near the preserves, to work with preserve neighbors, Johnny’s friends, on family lands they have grown up on, hunting and burning for decades. All the private lands we burned have been in the farmers’ families for generations. Mr. Jimmy Bland and Mr. Whit Player were fun to learn from and showed us what the famous Southern hospitality is all about. Johnny told us all about how the burns we are helping with on these private lands are part of the South Carolina Quail Council’s work restoring bobwhite quail habitat, especially on private lands, which we learned make up most of the land in South Carolina and other southern states.
Paul Priestly: I grew up in Illinois. For me, fire is so wild in so many ways. Fire feeds the spirit and the soul, and achieves good work that is meaningful to not only humans but to the landscape and the land ethic that Leopold talked about. That’s what attracted me. The issue of fire management in my opinion is one of the larger issues facing natural resources management, and I felt that was a field where I could make a contribution. Ethan and I met Johnny at the International Association of Wildland Fire Conference in Portland a few years back, through of all things, a yoga class he was teaching. He invited us to burn, and here we are. This is our second year burning in South Carolina.
Jacob Barcalow: I’m from Whittier, Iowa, a small Quaker town. I’ve always been fascinated by fire, but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I found out that the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point had a program for wildland fire fighting. From there, I honed my interest toward ecological goals and options with fire.
George Jensen: I’m from Borland, Wisconsin, which is a pretty small corn town in central Wisconsin. Growing up, I was on my first controlled burn when I was fourteen. After that, I was hooked. I always wanted to be a marine biologist, but I really liked trees and I liked burning. Coming to the UWSP, I had an ecosystem major in mind. I showed up to a fire crew meeting, Professor Ron Masters took us to Oklahoma [for fire training], and from then on, I became a student of fire. I want to carry on the lineage of burning, that’s been going on since the Native Americans. They burned land, and they burned everywhere. To have that culture come back into the U.S. is something I would really like to see. Anyone who inspects postburn areas can see the amount of new foliage production and the amount of wildlife there now.
Andrew Seifried: I’m from the suburbs of Chicago. Originally, I was going for structural firefighting down at the community college where I came from. I transferred to the UWSP. I didn’t know anything about natural resources or wildland fire until going to the university. The past three years have changed my life and showed me something I am passionate about. I found my calling. I want to do wildland fire, but also structural firefighting. This is something that is always changing. There’s always something going on.
Korey Badeau: I’m from a Wisconsin farm town called Gillet. I grew up around firemen. I was pretty ecologically-minded, and was lucky to learn about fire. I went with the Boy Scouts camping, and I was in the forest a lot. Didn’t know what I really wanted to do in college, but knew I like natural resources. And I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in an office all day. Dr. Ron Masters did a presentation about wildland fire science, and that got me really involved. I’ve been to Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma. I got a job with the Forest Service, and we’ve got a project going on up there [Wisconsin]. . . you can see the difference [between prescribed burn areas and other areas] where there has been a lack of fire. It’s great to see the landscape going back to the way it used to be. Restoring the ecological process that makes the landscape to what it used to be; it’s one of my passions.
Sam Lindblad: I’m a student at the UWSP, and I’m studying ecological restoration. This is my first time seeing a prescribed burn firsthand. I do organic farming in the summer, and growing healthy food for my local community is a passion of mine. I think it is amazing how we are all restoring the land in different ways.
Cori Semler: I’m from the southeastern part of Wisconsin. I was very fortunate to grow up with some great people in my family who did habitat management work on property in the northeast part of Wisconsin. My Dad and Grandpa originally owned the property. They were both structural firefighters. I grew up around the firehouse and fire life my whole life. When I got to Stevens Point, I started out in wildlife and absolutely loved it. And I realized in order to do more habitat management work, learning about fire was crucial. I picked up the fire science major and double majored in wildlife and fire. I started restoring fire in northeastern Wisconsin, using it to manage habitat for deer and other species. I love seeing the big impacts of fire on quail and for other animals in the state.
Mckenna Hammons: I’m from Clearlake, Wisconsin, which happens to be the hometown of Gaylord A. Nelson, who was on the forefront of some ecologically-minded legislation in the seventies: clean water and clean air. Natural resources was always at the forefront of my mind growing up: caring for the land and the waters, which is why I decided to go into natural resources at UWSP. I chose to go into wildlife. I knew I loved wildlife and wanted to study it. So, I got an internship at the Leopold Foundation, where we are doing prairie and oak savanna restoration. Learning how to restore prairie and savannah landscapes drew me into exploring the benefits of fire to red-cockaded woodpeckers in the South, and how important fire is for that species. Restoring fire and other ecosystems is what keeps me going.
Michael Scharenbrock: I’m from northwest Wisconsin, and my background is in land management. I grew up on a small honey bee farm, and we did some prescribed burning and timber management. That led me to UWSP to study natural resources. I was able to take wildland fire certification classes, and I got hooked. Then I got with this crew. It’s a big part of my life. I feel fortunate to come down here and understand the different fire cultures. I’ve spent a good amount of time talking with Johnny about that. This is something that needs to be appreciated. Johnny, thanks for “Sharing the Flame” with us.
Kelley Harkins: I grew up in Illinois. Wildland Fire Science is a major [at USWP], a career that is all about problem-solving, restoring ecosystems and returning the natural process of fire to the landscape. There’s plenty of work to be done, and I’m pretty passionate about it. That’s why I’m here: seeing fire used to restore landscapes in different parts of the country is really important, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Johnny Stowe: I grew up in the ridges and hollers of the mountain longleaf pine firelands on the Alabama and Georgia line. Country folks used to burn the mountains every year in early spring. People understood fire. The mountains would be smoking for two or three months. Fire crept here and there, seldom getting intense, because the fuels never built up.
It’s great to have these students come down and burn with me here in South Carolina. They are so knowledgeable. They have all their gear. And it’s hard work. Sometimes they’re working twelve hours a day. And for free; they are all volunteers. They have had a lot of great technical training. At UWSP, they have a bachelors degree dedicated to wildland fire. When I burn with these students, I’m reminded of things I learned a long time ago. I learn new things. And I get to teach, which I dearly love to do. I want the things I was taught by my elders and professors and fire gurus like Dale Wade, the things I have learned from books and experience, all of it, to be carried into the future after I am long gone. It is a pure delight to learn and teach about something you love, both at the same time.