University of Montana students learn on Georgia burns

By Hilary Smith

University of Montana students and instructors assist Georgia DNR on prescribed burns.

They came from the mountains, where the winter temperature often hovers on the southerly side of zero. They came with years of experience fighting raging western wildfires, but most had never seen prescribed fire – and a few, like student Patrick Odell, had never been east of the Mississippi.

For the sixth year in a row, a group of students and their instructors from the University of Montana arrived in south Georgia this month for a two-week practicum on prescribed fire. Based out of Moody Forest Natural Area, the group – known as the Grizzlies – has been burning at Moody Forest, The Nature Conservancy’s Broxton Rocks in Coffee County, and other Nature Conservancy, DNR and private properties in the area.

According to course instructor Jim Riddering, the practicum – which includes reading and writing assignments but is mostly experiential – offers participants a chance for greater leadership opportunities than they might otherwise receive at this point in their careers out West. Another aim, said Riddering, is to give the students familiarity with fire behavior and fuels in the Southeast.

For Odell, who is among 10 undergraduate and two graduate students in the 2013 crew, high points in Georgia have included working around the interesting challenges of the terrain, including gopher tortoise holes and turpentine trees.  He also noted his amazement that in Georgia “small changes in topography cause huge changes in vegetation.”

Senior wildlife ecologist Shan Cammack of Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section said it’s fascinating to watch the reactions of the Montana crew. “Southern rough, burning at such a high relative humidity, and burning so soon after rain are new concepts to them.”

For many Grizzlies, this is their first time dabbling in prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy’s Erick Brown wrote that the class gives students “a chance to connect and have some personal ownership of the benefits of prescribed fire.

“I hope they take that back to the western states, which are sorely in need of prescribed fire proponents.”

Watch the 2012 Grizzly crew in action in south Georgia!

2012 Prescribed Fire Practicum from Jim Rid on Vimeo.


Hilary Smith is a member of a seasonal fire crew hired by the Nongame Conservation Section.  Also read her first-person account of the 2012 burn season.