By Laurel Kays, Extension Assistant, NC State University

On Thursday, May 10, state and regional partners came together at the Airfield 4H Conference Center in Wakefield, VA to host a successful “learn and burn,” a workshop on prescribed fire for private landowners. The morning classroom session featured speakers from the Virginia Department of Forestry, Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Virginia Cooperative Extension on topics including the importance of fire, cost-share assistance, and Virginia fire laws. In the afternoon, landowner attendees partnered with experienced burners from agencies including the Virginia Department of Forestry to conduct a 10-acre prescribed burn on nearby state lands.

Numbers are important to all of us who operate in the workshop and outreach world, and the numbers from our event in Virginia tell an encouraging story-that the workshop really did address many landowner concerns surrounding prescribed fire. Evaluations showed that while attendees represented a variety of comfort levels with prescribed fire, they faced widely shared challenges to using it themselves, with 46% indicating that a lack of training and experience discouraged them from burning regularly. Following the workshop and live burn experience, those same evaluations showed that attendees indicating they would not use prescribed fire dropped from 58% before the workshop to 8% after.

Full group of workshop participants in live burn PPE

Photo by Leslie Boby, Southern Regional Extension Forestry

But workshops are more than numbers, and my own observations back up what those numbers say. Attendees had a variety of comfort levels with fire ranging from certified burners to a woman who was too scared of prescribed fire to consider having a contractor conduct a burn, despite being told by her consulting forester that it was her best management option. It was heartening to watch these landowners, especially those who had expressed hesitance and fear surrounding prescribed fire, take the morning classroom session into the field*. All of us in fire know how exciting and empowering it felt to pick up a driptorch for the first time, and from the reactions of our landowner attendees, that holds true for them. One workshop may not address every landowner concern, but allowing them to experience a well-conducted prescribed fire is an important first step towards more fire on the ground.

The Virginia “learn and burn” is only one of many similar programs that have been held across the Southeast in recent years by a wide array of agencies and organizations. Formats vary, and the effort involved in organizing an event with a live burn that landowners can safely participate in is not to be underestimated. But when you see someone pick up a driptorch for the first time, and hear them talk about the confidence and understanding of fire that it gave them, it sure does seem worth it.

If you or your agency are interested in hosting a “learn and burn,” be sure to tune in to the October 10th webinar on lessons learned from past events. You can register for that webinar here. In the meantime, check our our new Learn and Burn Workshops page for more examples and information from past workshops. 

*Teaching safe burning practices is an important part of promoting the use of safe, effective prescribed fire. For this workshop, all landowners were provided with proper PPE, including Nomex shirts and pants, goggles, hardhats, and leather gloves. They were also asked prior to the workshop to wear only cotton or wool clothing. If you are planning on organizing a “learn and burn” of your own, be sure to plan for appropriate safety measures, including PPE, for all participants.