Fire Ecology: Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Fire Ecology:  Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Fire Ecology

Fire Ecology is the understanding and management of fire. Everyone is familiar with firefighters, but firefighting in wildlands (forests and grasslands) is much different than in cities and towns. Wildfires can be huge and unpredictable, claiming the lives of many firefighters every year. But wildfires are natural and inevitable, playing an important role in many ecosystems. Unfortunately, the encroachment of human development into forests and grasslands means that fire and people will be more at odds than ever.

The fire management policy of most of the past century has been to suppress, and therefore prevent all forest fires. These policies failed to realize the extreme importance of fires to many ecosystems, particularly in the western United States, which cannot function without a natural cycle of fire. Now, we know that fires really are inevitable and that suppression practices have allowed a heavy build-up of dead vegetation and plants which are not resistant to fire. As a result, when fires do occur, they burn hotter and faster, are harder to control, and result in extensive human, economic and ecological damage.

Prescribed burns are one management tool used to simulate the natural fire ecology of wildlands. They remove dead vegetation and dense undergrowth, they thin out tree stands, and they effectively remove non-native species. Other tools include manual or mechanical removal of brush. Sometimes, Fire Ecologists have to get creative. In environmentally-sensitive areas, some managers are even using goats to clear understory plants and grasses.

The Academic Requirements

There are many two-year degree programs in Fire Science; these programs usually focus on the technical aspects of fighting fires and prepare graduates for seasonal or full-time employment. There are not many four-year degree programs in the field, but there are a number of forestry or natural resource degree programs with emphases and/or certificates offered in Fire Ecology.

Fire Ecology programs focus on the evaluation and management of fire-prone ecosystems. Students examine the complex issues that effect fire management, including the need to protect people and their property as well as to effectively manage wildlands to prevent catastrophic fires. Students learn the traditional roles and myths of fire and the scientific basis for fire ecology. They also learn about the latest technology of the field, including remote sensing of wildlands and fires. There may be courses in management and team-building, because most Fire Ecologists work with teams of fellow natural resource managers, foresters, the public, firefighters, and government supervisors to help solve fire management issues.

Fire Ecologists need to have good written and oral communication skills. Effective time management and crisis response skills are also important; sometimes, Fire Ecologists have to make difficult decisions quickly under stressful situations, such as catastrophic wildfires.

Here are some courses that we've seen:

  • Fire Ecology and Management
  • Fire, Myth and Mankind: Coming to terms with nature
  • Fire Ecology and Management
  • Prescribed Burning Laboratory
  • Advanced Applications in Fire Ecology and Management
  • Chemistry in Society
  • Occupational Health & Safety for Firefighters
  • Fire/Hydraulics/Water Supply
  • Fire Prevention Practices
  • Firefighting Tactics and Strategy
  • Forest Ecology
  • Hydrology

Professional Outlook

Fire Ecologists can do several different jobs. Those who work for State or Federal agencies will spend a good deal of the fire season looking out for and fighting wildfires. This can be very dangerous work, but it is also very rewarding to be able to save people and their homes from fires. In this field, most of the jobs are only available from May through September. All firefighters must be between the ages of 18 and 35 and pass a physical fitness test. They also go through training, either on the job or through an accredited school, such as a local community college or through a land-grant university. In addition to training, many firefighters are trained as Emergency Medical Technicians, so they can assist with medical emergencies related to the fire.

Other Fire Ecologists work as consultants, foresters, and other jobs. They mostly evaluate and monitor forest or grassland ecosystems for their interactions with fire. Many agencies use prescribed burns as part of their natural resource management strategies. For a prescribed burn, Fire Scientists evaluate the ecosystem, determine safety parameters, and light a fire under controlled conditions. This fire usually burns out the understory of a forest or grassland, allowing new plants to come through after the fire. These ecosystems have adapted to fire and thrive best when periodic small fires come.

Full-time positions can be obtained after firefighters have a few years in the field. Competition for these positions is fierce, because of a large applicant pool. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), "Firefighters receive benefits usually including medical and liability insurance, vacation and sick leave, and some paid holidays. Firefighters are generally covered by pension plans, often providing retirement at half pay after 25 years of service or if disabled in the line of duty."

Fire Ecologists who complete a bachelor's or master's degree program have a good chance of obtaining full-time employment, often with a government agency or as a private consultant. They usually work normal hours, in offices, meeting rooms and out in the field. During times of crises, ecologists may be called on to help manage wildfires. During this time, hours and working conditions will vary considerably.

Here are some job titles that we've seen, including some of the organizations that offer them, all of which included a requirement for experience in Fire Ecology:


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