Effective and cost-efficient, prescribed fire renews landscapes from grasslands to forests
By Maia Larson
My interest and passion for fire have been lifelong pursuits.
Raised by an ecologist, my mother’s career revolved around studying plant behavior and invasive plant species. During my childhood, I spent hours in the field with my mother as she conducted her summer research season. This valuable time eventually led to assisting her with restoration work to remove invasive species and perform prescribed burns on the campus nature reserve.
Through college and every year since then, I’ve been involved with fire to some degree. My career followed fire into the trenches as a seasonal crew member, working long hours and sweating buckets. While some days the conditions were miserable, those were also some of the best years of my life.
But why fire?
After nearly a century of excluding and suppressing natural fire, our forests have become overstocked with hazardous fuel loads and our grasslands have become invaded by woody species. While prescribed fire isn’t the only tool in the toolbox, it is one of the most effective and cost-efficient tools we have to maintain and restore threatened landscapes (like the grasslands) and support the wildlife that depends on them.
While the ecological benefits of fire are more than enough reason to fall in love with the method, the camaraderie and energy of the community of “pyrofessionals” is the number one reason to stay involved.
I don’t spend every day on the fire line anymore, but my mission remains the same: supporting and advocating for prescribed fire, whether that be by fire practitioners who have made it their life, landowners joining prescribed burn associations, or a college professor teaching students about the ecology that supports current habitat management practices.
Fire has been a huge part of human history. My goal is to help facilitate our return to a culture of fire. Our natural areas are resilient and restoration tools such as prescribed fire can produce landscapes that function ecologically and support a diversity of wildlife.
As I write this and pause to reflect on my career, I think about the excellent mentorship I’ve received along the way. As new generations enter the workforce, remember that a good mentor can change the trajectory of someone’s career. As much as I love the excitement of putting fire on the ground, I love and recognize the importance of mentoring new folks in the field. Throughout my career, I hope to inspire and empower more women to enter this largely, male-dominated field.
Likewise, I know my work has an impact on the future, as my daughter turns two this year. I hope that the work we’re doing means she can grow up with plenty of native diverse landscapes for her to hunt, fish, and watch wildlife.
And someday, if she decides to follow in her mom’s footsteps, I hope she won’t be the only woman on a 20-person crew. And who knows what our future holds? Perhaps it’s three generations of women who love working with fire.
Maia Larson is a conservation programs manager for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.