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Fire Network hosts exchange -- more photos added

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By Tris DeRoma

To some, “fighting fire with fire” is just an expression. However, to the “Fire Learning Network,” it’s a strategy it hopes will pay dividends in saved lives and property. 

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Made up of members from the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of the Interior, The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FLN has been teaching firefighters across the country as well as the world how to do controlled burns.

They will be in the Jemez Mountains, conducting that training.

Now until the end of September, the FLN will be doing controlled burns in the Santa Fe National Forest, showing a group of firefighters from Spain, Argentina, Mexico and Puerto Rico how to “fight fire with fire.” 

The FLN has been around for about five years, but their fire fighting concept isn’t new; in fact, it’s probably thousands of years old, says Jeremy Bailey, Fire Learning Network coordinator for the Conservancy’s North America Initiative.

“I think if you do your research, you’ll find that many vegetative communities in North America and around the world have adapted to fire or have had a relationship with fire for thousands and thousands of years,” Bailey said. 

Bailey went on to say that while well intentioned, the modern day practice of suppressing forest fires as soon as they start,   a technique that evolved over the last hundred years, has led to the situation we have now; huge wildfires that rage for weeks because of all the fuel there is to burn. 

“Like the sun and the rain, fire is necessary and inevitable,” he said. “There is no option to exclude fire from these vegetative communities.” 

But, if there’s one thing that the FLN is doing differently from  Mother Nature, it’s applying techniques that limit the scope and range of a fire, as well as when it starts.

“Either we can do it, or Mother Nature can do it, and she’ll do it the way she wants to, usually on the worst day possible,” said Mary Huffman, director of fire training for the Nature Conservancy. 

And that’s why the FLN and the other agencies picked late September to do the burning, because it’s a time when the winds are low and there’s moisture. 

So far the firefighters have been learning not only about the tools and techniques, but the U.S. command structure when it comes to firefighting as well. Rafael Gómez, a firefighter from Spain, remarked how flexible and democratic the structure is.

“I really liked the incident command system, specifically how a lower firefighter can express concern to the supervisor without any kind of reprimand.” 

According to Huffman, the burn should take about two weeks and burn between 500 and a thousand acres within the Santa Fe National Forest.

And when it’s all over she said, not only will a new group of firefighters possess the latest techniques, but the Nature Conservancy and the other agencies in the FLN will have made a small section of wilderness safer than it once was.

“There’s a recognition in the partnership that fire has become so complex in today’s world that none of us has all the answers,” Huffman said.

 “So we have to put our heads together and our cards on the table to help one another deal with what’s really a national problem.”

The fire exchange programs began in 2008 to help address the nation’s shortfall of qualified burners. Since 2008, the Fire Learning Network has hosted 19 exchanges, resulting in more than 65,000 acres being treated.

 This is the second time the Fire Learning Network has offered this specialized training in New Mexico.