May 11, 2022 – The only way to understand the nuances of working a fireline is by being on one. The six-year-old Fire Tigers Program recently took more than 50 Clemson University students and put them through the rigors of classroom training, then placed them with fire professionals as they learned how to mitigate fire firsthand.

The program started in 2016 with funding from the Forest Service Southern Region and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists. And in 2019, a grant from the Washington Office of the Forest Service provided flame-resistant Nomex uniforms, radios, and travel funding. In addition, the South Carolina Dispatch Center provides paperwork processing support.

The program starts with a week of classes about fire basics. Students who like the classes can continue their fire training – they can take saw and pump classes and help conduct prescribed fires on nearby national forests. Some students work on wildfires and become certified wildland firefighters.

Students who participate in the Fire Tigers Program are usually freshmen or sophomores and are often studying forestry or wildlife biology.

One of the goals of the program is teaching students how to make land management decisions based on sound science.

“From start to finish, we view this as a huge learning experience for each individual, and of course we hope they’ll take it to a career in managing the land,” says Helen Mohr, USDA Forest Service researcher and director of the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists. “We had a dream about putting this crew together for a long time.”

Mohr created the Fire Tigers Program with Wes Bentley, the zone fire management officer for the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. Nearly four decades of fire research has taken place on the Andrew Pickens Ranger District.

“The Sumter National Forest is such a great host,” says Mohr. “They make sure researchers have everything we need. The process works so well, very seamless.”

Other universities such as Appalachian State University in North Carolina and the University of Florida hope to create similar programs.

“Many of the students have worked summer jobs out West on hand crews and engines,” says Mohr. “Currently, ten graduates are working in land management of some sort that involves the use of fire. Two are currently finishing up master’s degrees in fire science.”

Mohr, Bentley, and others on the Sumter National Forest, at Clemson University, the Southern Research Station, and the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers were recognized with a 2021 Regional Forester’s Honor Award.