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Reflections on a Decade of NAFSE

By Amanda Mahaffey

In April, I’ll be transitioning from the Forest Stewards Guild and North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange leadership team to a position as a forest ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I will remain a part of the NAFSE community, and you’ll still see me on the occasional prescribed burn.

For those of you who are aware of my work outside of fire, you may like to read this piece I wrote on reflections on 12 years at the Guild. For the NAFSE community, I want to capture a special reflection on NAFSE evolution and on my own learning journey in fire. I am deeply thankful for the collaborators, colleagues, mentors, and friends I have gained through the past decade of fire science and management.

Test Fire

NAFSE was the brainchild of Erin Lane, who utilized her boundless energy to start a grassroots fire science consortium in 2012. Thankfully, the Joint Fire Sciences Program (JFSP) noticed a gaping blank spot on the U.S. map where a Northeast-focused fire science exchange should be. JFSP put out a call, and it was answered by Erin Lane, Nick Skowronski, Inga LaPuma, and myself. Together, we held sensing sessions, captured input, and crafted a pre-proposal that made the case for creating a fire science consortium in the Northeast. In 2014, the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange was born. (Coincidentally, my nephew was born the same day that Erin, Nick, Inga, and I first met.)

Erin, Nick, Inga, and I first met at a fire conference hosted by the Yale Forestry School. Little did we know that we were about to set the North Atlantic community on fire.

The sensing session in Amherst, MA brought together some soon-to-be familiar faces in the fire science world.

Anchor and Flanks

We soon established a social media presence, created a newsletter, and began writing research briefs and hosting webinars highlighting regionally-relevant fire science research. The NAFSE community began to grow as new fire managers and scientists discovered these materials and connected with us. Ideas for science communication topics and products also came from our intrepid NAFSE Community Reps, who act as our eyes and ears to keep us apprised of fire science needs across the region. We supported community members in hosting field trips that offered an outdoor classroom for shared learning (e.g. spruce budworm and fire, southeastern Massachusetts pine barrens, New Jersey contemporary fire history). We created capstone workshops to highlight regional fire science and management work in the New Jersey Pine Barrens (2015) and on fire in oak in southern New England (2016). In 2016, I took S130/190 at Camp Edwards and very quickly caught the “fire bug.”

The 2015 NJ capstone workshop crew poses at Coyle Airfield.

Left: The 2016 oak capstone workshop brought together disparate fire scientists and managers interested in increasing the role of fire in oak ecosystems in the North Atlantic. Center: I was captured in a classic “workshop junkie” moment facilitating a field trip during the JFSP Governing Board meeting in New Jersey. Right: It was another smoky Nomex day during a prescribed burn at the Ossipee Barrens in New Hampshire.

Interior Ignitions

Through 2017, the NAFSE community continued to grow with each event, or “resonance,” that catalyzed connections and collaborations between fire scientists and land managers across the region. Practitioners who had formerly felt alone now had support from colleagues facing the same management challenges. Researchers listened to practitioners in the field and developed partnerships that would make their science more relevant. I gained experience as a true wildland firefighter with the Maine Fire Crew on an assignment in Quebec

The demand for NAFSE support for fire community-building events grew. We hosted numerous webinars, and newsletters and social media were filled with exciting fire science information and connections. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve hosted a fuels monitoring workshop, inspired by our friends at the Lake States Fire Science Consortium. October of 2017 marked the 70th anniversary of the 1947 wildfires that led to the creation of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact (and a series of commemorative events cohosted by NAFSE, the Compact, and local partners in Acadia). Demand was growing rapidly for regionally relevant fire science information.

Upper Left: Jake McCumber discusses fire effects during a NAFSE field trip at Camp Edwards. Upper Center: Kathy Schwager orients a field group to burn units at Brookhaven National Lab during an event on Keeping the Pine in the Pine Barrens. Upper Right: Dr. Bill Patterson describes differences in areas burned or unburned during the 1947 wildfires that swept through Maine and across the North Atlantic. Bottom: Participants in the NAFSE fuels monitoring workshop pause from fieldwork to pose for a group picture in a recent burn unit right outside the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center.

Flame Front 

We stepped up collaboration with the Compact with the 2018 Igniting Exchange joint meeting, which brought together hundreds of wildland firefighters and fire scientists from across the Northeast U.S. and Canadian Maritime provinces for days of fire science exchange. The meeting sparked new friendships and ideas for fire science collaboration. It also solidified NAFSE’s engagement in the Compact’s annual Winter Awareness Meeting.

NAFSE was rapidly becoming a sought-after partner for bringing people together for changemaking events. In the process, we shifted our measure of success from products to people. The rewards abounded in the form of exciting new fire science ideas, connections sparked between disparate NAFSE community members, and new audiences engaged in fire science learning. I joined partner agencies in forming the Maine Prescribed Fire Council. The momentum also led to the Forest Stewards Guild being tapped to lead a community wildfire protection planning effort in Maine’s Massabesic region, as well as active participation in The Nature Conservancy’s national Fire Networks. The Forest Stewards Guild also brought together NAFSE contacts for Fire Adapted Communities Learning Exchanges between the pine barrens of Long Island, New York and southern New Jersey.

The 2018 Igniting Exchange meeting catalyzed connections between fire managers and scientists from across the North Atlantic.

Field trips to Montague Plains and Cape Cod introduced NAFSE community members to the benefits of 30+ years of prescribed fire and long-term data collection across treatments.

Left: NAFSE also organized a field trip to the fire lab at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Right:  Dr. Mark Lesser from SUNY-Plattsburgh describes a data plot setup in jack pine forest at the Altona Flat Rock during a multi-day workshop.

Group photos from the Pine Barrens Learning Exchanges, which facilitated shared learning around wildfire preparedness in New Jersey and on Long Island, New York.

Wind Shift

2020 caused us to reimagine our work in a time of social distancing. As Inga left the NAFSE leadership team for a new role, we were joined by Virginia Schutte, who brought a depth of enthusiasm, creativity, and experience using digital media to make science exciting. NAFSE rapidly shifted to virtual events. Before many of us knew how to use Zoom, we worked with Compact teammates to offer a training on how to optimize NWCG trainings in a digital environment and supported the virtual annual meetings of the Compact and the Pennsylvania Prescribed Fire Council. We teamed up with our brother and sister Fire Science Exchanges in the East to offer the Fueling Collaboration panel discussion series, which drew hundreds of participants from the outset. We crafted a multi-day virtual prescribed burn modeling workshop with collaborators from Tall Timbers Research Station and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Led by NAFSE community members, we also launched a working group on Southern Pine Beetle and Fire, as well as a Fire and Fire History working group, both of which have offered outstanding virtual events with NAFSE support. I was also tapped by the Maine Army National Guard to facilitate an engine operations training. Through the era of unprecedented challenges, NAFSE led the way in empowering our community to sustain our work, together.

The Fueling Collaboration organizers are a fun, dynamic group. Together, we craft virtual events on a rich variety of topics relevant to fire managers and scientists across the eastern U.S.

Left: After a year of only collaborating on Zoom, Amanda and Virginia met for the first time in person! Right: The engine operations training brought together many NAFSE partners for a hands-on field experience.


We came roaring back with safely-planned events such as the NAFSE prescribed fire science workshop, the 2022 New Jersey Fire Camp, the ME-TREX, and the long-awaited field trip to The Dome. Each of these events was a landmark in its own right: the science workshop convened leaders in fire science for field-based strategic discussions around meeting regional fire science needs. The inaugural Fire Camp introduced university students to careers in fire science and management in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and was so successful that we were swarmed with applications for our 2024 Fire Camp. The ME-TREX, or prescribed fire training exchange, was the first in the Northeast, once again filling a hole in the map of fire network activity. The Dome webinar and hike created space for shared learning on ties between oak, fire history, prescribed burn operations, research, partnerships, and related topics woven in by the speakers and participants up and down the mountain. 

In the midst of these activities, we lost Virginia to the penguins and gained Eric on the NAFSE leadership team. Eric, a longtime member of the fire community, fit right in at NAFSE, bringing a fresh energy and a meteorological perspective to our existing collaborations. Eric created the student webinar series as a special opportunity for students in fire to gain experience presenting their cutting-edge research to a professional audience, and for professionals to connect with students in fire. Last fall, NAFSE participated in the National Cohesive Strategy workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico alongside our fellow Fire Science Exchanges, and we were represented at the Northeast-Midwest workshop in Madison, Wisconsin and at the Association of Fire Ecology. Fire science communication is in popular demand across the North Atlantic.

Left: Lauren Howard describes the formation of cat faces during a prescribed burn at “Small Timbers.” Right: Kevin Hiers explores fire science possibilities during the in-person prescribed fire science workshop.

Upper Left: Neil Gifford leads a field discussion of the Albany Pine Bush burn and weather parameters. NAFSE helped convene scientists and practitioners to help provide input into a management plan update. Upper Right: Ignitions during the ME-TREX, which drew participants from coast to coast to southern Maine for two weeks of learning and burning together. Lower Left: A presentation at the Compact’s Winter Awareness Meeting showed how truly unprecedented the 2023 Canadian wildfire season was (see red spike of hectares burned). Lower Right: A field visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Waterboro Barrens Preserve illustrated the value of active management with thinning and prescribed fire to reduce hazardous fuels and mitigate the spread of Southern Pine Beetle.

Passing the Torch

Already this year, NAFSE has a solid lineup of events with the upcoming 2024 New Jersey Fire Camp, the 2024 Northeast-Midwest Prescribed Fire Science and Management Workshop in Albany, New York, and the 2024 National Cohesive Strategy meeting in New Jersey. As I step away from my leadership role with NAFSE, I feel comforted knowing I will still be part of this vibrant community of practitioners and scientists. I have been called an engine behind NAFSE activities, but the reality today is that the NAFSE community is the engine; I’ve just been a conductor helping to move us forward, together. Now, I’m creating space for a new leader to step up and drive the train forward toward our fire science future. With all of us on board, I look forward to seeing where NAFSE goes next!


A note from the NAFSE leadership team:

Amanda, we cannot thank you enough for all your contributions over the past decade. We and the NAFSE community have benefitted from your vast knowledge, strong leadership, and passion to connect us all through fire science. Thank you again for making NAFSE a relevant entity in the fire and forestry community.

Personally for us it has been a wonderful journey with you Amanda. We may be sad to see you go, but how lucky are we to be able to say we were able to work and collaborate with someone like you. Just as in the picture Amanda, thank you for bringing so much sunshine into our lives. And it is a good thing you are wearing those sunglasses, because your future will be forever bright!


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