Editors’ Note: Dakota Wagner is the Southeast Region Coordinator for the Forest Stewards Guild based in Asheville, North Carolina. In her role with the Guild, Dakota is focused on community engagement, forestry education coordination and forest restoration project management. Here Dakota shares a step-wise approach to organizing Learn-and-Burns by focusing on two recent workshops.

“Seeing a live controlled burn for the first time was really impactful. It connected the abstract topics such as ‘firebreaks,’ ‘headwind’ and ‘firing techniques’ to something tangible.” This is what a first-time Learn-and-Burn participant said to me as he observed his first prescribed burn. He is not the only one to feel this way. When looking through the evaluation data of dozens of Learn-and-Burns, participants repeatedly share that witnessing live fire was “the most useful part” of the workshop.

Learn-and-Burns are workshops that incorporate the use of live fire into an educational event. Sometimes, participants don fire gear and carry the drip torch themselves. Other times, they watch from the firebreaks with burn mentors who narrate operations as they are happening. There is no one size fits all approach to hosting Learn-and-Burns and each is as unique as the people and places that are involved. What matters is that those involved expand their understanding and ideally their trust of prescribed fire as a tool for managing forests.

This spring, the Forest Stewards Guild was involved in planning several Learn-and-Burns in the Southeast. In this article I identify five key universal steps that go into a successful Learn-and-Burn and take a look at two specific workshops showcasing the different approaches that each Learn-and-Burn took.

A group of people overlook as a fire ignites.

Attendees observe the first ignition of the burn unit. Photo by: Shawn Swartz

STEP 1: Identify goals, target audience, key partners and available resources

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself when beginning to plan a Learn-and-Burn is “why do I want to do this?” Planning a prescribed burn takes an immense amount of organization and communication. Adding the workshop factor only increases the time and energy needed to coordinate the burn. Understanding your goals, the target audience and available resources can often dictate what is feasible.

Workshop 1: For this Learn-and-Burn, organizers wanted to host an event targeting local private forest landowners. Goals included: educating attendees about the benefits of prescribed fire, the basics of prescribed fire implementation and sharing resources available to landowners for fire implementation.

Workshop 2: For this Learn-and-Burn, organizers wanted to host an event targeting communities and neighborhoods that surrounded a forest tract that was about to start a burn rotation. Forest managers of the tract wanted to invite the surrounding community to the first-entry burn, so that later burns would not cause confusion and alarm. Their goals included: addressing concerns of the community, informing community members of activity, educating about the ecological benefits of prescribed fire and exhibiting wildfire mitigation benefits.

STEP 2: Select format and site location for program

There is no cookie-cutter way to host a Learn-and-Burn. These workshops can be single or multi-day events, hybrid (virtual/in-person) or fully in-person and can differ in how the attendees participate in the live burn. Regardless of the format, it is highly recommended to select a site with multiple possible burn units that have differing prescription parameters to account for a variety of weather conditions and to allow for the most flexibility.

Workshop 1: Organizers chose to host a one-day event that included an educational session preceding a live burn. A single day event can be beneficial as it may require less logistical planning and allow for participants and organizers to only reserve one day in their calendar.

Workshop 2: Organizers chose to have a virtual educational session one week before the live burn date. A hybrid event can be beneficial as it allows for more attendees to participate in the educational session and allows for more flexibility in selecting a final burn date.

STEP 3: Select target date and backup date, then construct agenda

Likely the most challenging aspect of organizing a Learn-and-Burn is planning for weather and falling within prescription on the chosen event day. Of the five Learn-and-Burns the Guild was involved in this spring, 60% were postponed due to weather. A lingering question: is it better to have a backup activity in place of live fire or postpone the event until conditions are right?

Workshop 1: This Learn-and-Burn had one date option: Saturday February 26th. Sometimes, participants are not flexible in the days they can show up to a workshop so organizers planned a contingency agenda of backup activities in case of inclement burn weather. Activities they included were hands-on tool use training, sand table exercises and demonstrations of how to monitor localized fire weather.

Workshop 2: Most Learn-and-Burns have a target date and a backup date to allow for weather. The organizers of this Learn-and-Burn chose two Saturdays in March in hopes that one would have good weather conditions. Unfortunately, the burn window did not cooperate to hold this burn in-person during the Spring 2022 burn season. However, because of the virtual educational session, participants will be equipped with the base knowledge when the next burn window comes around.

STEP 4: Begin planning logistics of field portion

After selecting a site and a date, laying out the logistics of the field portion may take up most of the planning time. Logistics to address include: liability, PPE, permits, burn team personnel and burn mentors, on-site communications, equipment needs and human needs in the field (e.g. water and snacks and accessibility accommodations).

Both Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 had the goal to educate participants about the benefits of prescribed fire and allow for conversation. Organizers determined that the most effective strategy to do that would be to have experienced burn mentors assigned to groups of four to five attendees and remain on the outside of the burn unit. This gave participants the opportunity to ask questions in a more intimate, easy to talk setting. Participants were able to ask their mentor about all they were seeing including ignition tactics, fuel conditions, fire behavior, etc. This also cut down on the amount of PPE that was needed – participants were outfitted in hardhats and protective eyewear, rather than full Nomex.

A group of people stand in forest

A burn mentor describes what is happening in the burn unit to Learn-and-Burn attendees. Photo by: Shawn Swartz

STEP 5: Prepare for the day of the burn and put together an event evaluation

Along with the expected workshop checklist of items like printing agendas, buying snacks and gathering resources, an often-overlooked part of planning a Learn-and-Burn is putting together an event evaluation. Learn-and-Burn event evaluations obtain trackable data specific to prescribed fire. Even if some of us do not need to use this data in grant reporting, it is incredibly rewarding to see the results of your hard work on paper and it can help inform future planning endeavors.  In addition, allowing participants to share their experiences makes them feel their time and participation was valued which is essential to successful community engagement.

Workshop 1: The evaluation for this Learn-and-Burn included eight questions: two gathered information about the audience, two rated participant satisfaction and the remaining four questions were topic-related. It is important to keep evaluations short and sweet, and have participants complete them on-site while the experience is fresh in their minds.

After analyzing the responses, we discovered just how impactful the workshop was. Let’s highlight three of the questions asked:

For each of the following topics please rate your knowledge level, form poor to excellent, both before and after the field day. 

Step 6: Celebrate your success…

…and start planning the next one!

These five steps are distilled and summarized – working live fire into a workshop does take additional effort but the benefits can far outweigh the increased work. As we all continue to expand the use of prescribed fire as a management tool, we will also continue to be confronted with barriers to implementation. Some of those barriers may include people who are uncertain about the use of prescribed fire, or even anti-fire. Seeing live fire and witnessing all that goes into a burn from the logistics, to the weather forecasting, to the safety mechanisms can often ease the minds of those concerned. Empowering any audience (the public, landowners or even practitioners) through education and mentoring can positively influence the perception of prescribed fire and increase support for it which is an essential step to returning good fire to the land and can help us all learn to live better with fire.