By Amanda Mahaffey, Forest Stewards Guild, email@example.com
A group of Maine TREX participants examine fresh fire effects at Wells Barrens.
a day of the ME-TREX 2022
September is traditionally a promising time for fall burning in southern Maine. The fall of 2022 brought more rain than one would want for prescribed fire, but not enough to dampen the mood for over 30 participants and training leaders who gathered for the long-awaited ME-TREX. A TREX, or prescribed fire training exchange, is a training event conceived of by The Nature Conservancy to advance the pace and scale of prescribed fire across the landscape. The 2022 ME-TREX was the first of its kind in the Northeast. Like other TREXs, the ME-TREX brought its own flavor to the TREX “recipe” of training, treatment, and outreach. The two-week event was intended to accomplish ecological burning and reduce hazardous fuels. Through this work, participants would grow their fireline qualifications and experience. The story of the impact of this work on the landscape would be amplified through purposeful outreach within and beyond the fire community.
(Left) The local camp bear took safety precautions by donning a hardhat and posting "Prescribed Burn Ahead" signage. (Right) Participants gathered lakeside for some icebreakers and to begin learning about one another.
The planning, which had begun prior to the coronavirus pandemic, was led by a core planning team of Maine Prescribed Fire Council leaders representing The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Maine Chapter, The Maine Forest Service, the Maine Army National Guard, and the Forest Stewards Guild. As September approached, this team was augmented into the ME-TREX Incident Management Team (IMT) with help from ESRI, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oregon Military Department. In addition to these agencies, the TREX was also made possible by key support from the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact (NFFPC), the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange (NAFSE), and TNC’s Fire Learning Network. We used the Maine Teen Camp in Porter as our base of operations, which proved a welcome home-away-from-home during the training event.
(Left) The Maine Forest Service’s Kent Nelson and Justin Carney lead participants through SimTable exercises. (Center) Chris O’Brien (USFS, retired) leads a group of FEMO trainees in a Firewise assessment at the Maine Teen Camp using ESRI’s Survey123 during a rainy-day activity. (Right) Madeleine Landrum, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine, shares fresh information from her research on Maine’s fire history.
Our full two-week participants arrived on a Sunday night and early the following morning. Travelers came from Oregon, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Nova Scotia. Our participants represented a variety of state and federal agencies, TNC chapters, stewardship organizations, and universities. While it rained outside, the participants and IMT went through check-in and orientation to Maine’s fire landscape. We broke into groups to familiarize ourselves with the variety of wildland fire engines and UTVs. Icebreaker activities at the lakeside and around the enormous fireplace helped build group cohesion. The fireplace, which was the only source of heat in the camp, became the centerpoint of social activities over the next two weeks.
(Left) Dave Crary stands with Amanda Mahaffey, Forest Stewards Guild, beside the lodge fire. (Center) Dr. Bill Patterson joined us on the fireline to share some of his decades of wisdom in fire and fire ecology. (Right) During an AAR, Tim Simmons shares reflections on the changes in fuels and ecological impacts of burns he’s witnessed at Kennebunk Plains over the past three decades.
We soon got into the routine of breakfast at 0630, morning briefing at 0800, and engine checks and ensuing activities thereafter. Morning briefings featured a variety of voices on weather, safety, incident objectives, operations, and logistics. While the fuels dried outdoors, we learned from a variety of speakers on fire-related topics in Maine, including pine barrens ecology, fire weather tools by the National Weather Service, Indigenous blueberry burning, Maine’s fire history, gender dynamics in fire, and the work of TNC in Maine. We also practiced Firewise assessments and mock-media interviews, toured the Maine Forest Service’s Mobile Command Vehicle, and ran SimTable exercises. Later in the program, our group was joined by legendary figures in fire science and management from the Northeast, including Dave Crary (retired from Cape Cod National Seashore), Tim Simmons (retired from MassWildlife), and Dr. Bill Patterson (retired from UMass-Amherst), all of whom were integral to building a culture of prescribed fire in this landscape over the past several decades. Their voices joined us in fireside chats, field conversations, and formal presentations that greatly enhanced our participants’ understanding of the role of prescribed fire in the Northeast.
(Left) Zack Boyajian, New Hampshire Army National Guard, evaluates Mike Parisio, a day participant from the Maine Forest Service Insect and Disease Laboratory, on his NWCG engine tasks. (Right) James MacKinnon, Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, provides a fire weather update during a morning briefing.
As the days rolled into one another, the ME-TREX group bonded. Every single person was committed to the culture of shared learning. Everyone was there to be trained, but also to practice mentorship of others. This pillar of TREXs is critical to ensuring a well-trained, supported future of firefighters and fire lighters. The IMT worked hard for hours every night planning the command structure for the next day’s operations to maximize the opportunities for learning and building fireline qualifications. The universally supportive nature of our TREX group made for an outstanding training environment. We worked hard, laughed hard, and felt fulfilled at the end of each long day. This welcoming culture made a huge impression on our single-day participants, 4-6 of whom would join us daily for a taste of the TREX experience and go home inspired to become more involved in prescribed fire. We were glad to be able to be inclusive of these fire partners to help build interest in prescribed fire among their home volunteer fire departments, agencies, and universities.
(Left) A sample org chart for a prescribed burn, developed thoughtfully by the IMT. (Right) Jon Bailey, TNC-ME, obtains a burn permit from the chief of the Wells Fire Department.
Due to the weather conditions and other factors, we were unable to burn in pine barrens forest. Thankfully, we had excellent contingency plans in grassland and shrubland units at the Wells Barrens Preserve managed by TNC-ME and the Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and TNC-Maine. These lands proved to be excellent “classrooms” for prescribed fire training. Our fire effects monitor (FEMO) trainees documented surprisingly high relative humidities and lower-than-predicted wind gusts that generated fire effects worth a second look. With our special guests, we had field discussions about topics such as the seasonality of mowing and burning, the ”spring dip,” and fire-adapted flora and fauna. Every participant became a student of fire in their presence.
(Left to right, top to bottom) Stiff Aster (Ionactis linariifolia), Scrub Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), Hannah Sigg (Homo sapiens spp. firefighter), Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), and Northern Blazing Star (Liatris novae-angliae) are among the fire-adapted species found at Wells Barrens and Kennebunk Plains.
Operationally, the ME-TREX cohort became a cohesive unit. We were able to create initial attack (IA) exercises in a black-lined unit at the Wells Barrens. IMT members ignited fires, then called “dispatch” to request resources, which had to be prepared to respond to a variety of scenarios. Students gained valuable experience responding to these incidents, sizing up the situation, making judgment calls on additional resources needed, communicating effectively through the lively radio traffic, and closing out these live fire scenarios. The regular prescribed burns similarly provided excellent learning opportunities for trainees in the firing boss, engine boss, burn boss, and other essential roles on the fireline. The organizers were thrilled to see the team we had built from the applicant pool in-action and operating effectively. When a hurricane-driven wind shift forced a road closure on the last day of burning, the entire team followed the burn boss’ clear instructions and kept the situation under control. It was a long day – one of many times we were late for dinner – but a good one in that we had accomplished our burning and training objectives, and everyone went home safely.
(Left) Aliesha Black leads an AAR following the first day of prescribed fire burning. (Right) Aliesha, right, speaks with Zach Boyajian and Colleen Urffer.
As the days rolled into one another, the autumn colors changed and the nighttime temperatures dropped. Thankfully, one drying day provided great weather for giving our hard-working crew a break and a chance to visit a lighthouse and explore downtown Portland, Maine. We were excited to wrap up the TREX with a crescendo of three days in a row of putting good fire on the ground. All told, we burned roughly 275 acres, enabled participants to check off dozens of tasks in their taskbooks, and empowered the Maine Forest Service’s Aliesha Black to become the first Ranger to earn a burn boss (RXB2) qualification. Before we knew it, we were gathered by the fire for our final after-action review (AAR) by the well-loved camp fireplace. One by one, our participants bade us farewell and departed for home with smiles on their faces and smoke in their clothing.
Maine TREX participant burn together and learn together. (Top left) Collen Urffer, USFS Monongahela National Forest. (Bottom right) Shon Robbins, Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of State Parks.
The warm glow of the 2022 ME-TREX burns on. As we catch our collective breath after an intense two weeks, we at the Maine Prescribed Fire Council are already dreaming about the future. We want to have more TREXs in the Northeast, hopefully rotating the host location around the region. We’re excited about closer collaboration with our own state agencies and partners such as the Compact. Most importantly, we want to celebrate our core successes – we learned well and burned well together, and everyone made it home safe and sound. Our fire-adapted natural communities have healthier habitats, and our human communities are safer places to work and live. Building on this solid foundation of trust and shared experience, we look forward to bringing more prescribed fire to the Northeast in the years to come.