Igniting Fire Culture on Campus  

Image of a woman in protective Nomex clothing conducting a prescribed burn at the Biocore Prairie

The hottest course on campus, Landscape Architecture 581: Prescribed Fire Ecology & Implementation, has wrapped up its sixth year as a spring semester offering. Led by Jeb Barzen and a cadre of supporting organizations and volunteers, including the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Aldo Leopold Foundation, International Crane Foundation, Quercus Land Stewardship Services, UW Arboretum, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, student demand for the course has grown in recent years. 

Preserve staff have supported the course since its inception, assisting with live fire training exercises at the UW Arboretum and benefiting from student volunteer assistance to accomplish prescribed burns in the Preserve. Students are required to volunteer on at least three prescribed burns outside of class, contributing to land management efforts in the greater Madison area and beyond.  

For the spring semester of 2024, the course expanded to two sessions, and for the first time, the Preserve hosted live fire training exercises in Biocore Prairie. Four Thursdays were marked on the calendar to hold three live fire training days, with one day held as a rain date. The fitful weather experienced through April only allowed live fire exercises on the final day. Still, students and instructors made the most of the beautiful, dry conditions to accomplish the training objectives.  

Three students standing in a prairie wearing protective Nomex clothing.
Students in LA 581 participate in a prescribed burn at the Biocore Prairie in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on April 21, 2024. Photos: Lauren Graves

Through live fire exercises and volunteer work on prescribed burn crews, students gain valuable hands-on experience working alongside fire professionals in a variety of contexts. They get to see firsthand how fire shapes and maintains biodiversity in natural communities and gain an understanding of the level of planning, preparation, and physical effort required to conduct prescribed burns. The course also allows students to earn entry-level National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) training certification, which is a baseline requirement to participate on most private contractor and government agency prescribed burn crews.  

Peering back through the smoke plume of another semester, students’ interest in reconnecting their relationship with fire and the land is strong. Each cohort of students represents more trained hands to implement safe and effective prescribed burns across our fire-adapted landscapes and additional ambassadors to spread the message of ecologically perceptive fire management.  

By Adam Gundlach, Lakeshore Nature Preserve Field Projects Coordinator