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Fires can be both good and bad for the forest, UWSP students learning why


STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAU) -- As the snow melts and the ground dries, the risk of fire increases. That is not entirely bad. That’s according to UW Stevens Point Associate Professor Ron Masters, who trains College of Natural Resources students in wildland fire science. Masters says there is both good and bad in a fire.  “Every time you do a burn, you benefit some species, and you may actually harm other species, but overall, ecosystems in Wisconsin and across the country are adapted to fire, and actually need fire at some level.”

Right now, Masters says the danger of large wildland fires is high because the forests are not being harvested or managed as well as they could be.  “There is a problem as far as forest densification, insect and disease outbreaks, which are creating higher fuel loads, and that are creating this huge hazard of catastrophic fire that we’re seeing now.”

Masters believes much of the reason behind less timber management and harvesting is our own fault.  “Part of the responsibility needs to be upon us. because for several decades, we pushed the forest service not to do timber harvests, and the forest service complied, exactly with the public wishes.”

UW Stevens Point is one of half a dozen bachelor’s degree wildland fire science programs, and the only program east of the Mississippi River. Students go on to careers in firefighting, predicting fire behavior; fuels management; and fire ecology.  “The job market frankly right now is better than it’s ever been. We’re going to continue to have catastrophic fires. It’s not going to go away, and it’s not something that we’re going to fix even in the next ten years.”

Masters says structures and wildlands are very different types of fires, from the way they burn to the equipment used.  “We’re having wildland and urban interface issues right now. People are building homes in the wild lands, and that’s where a huge part of the cost comes in suppressing wildfires, is from fighting at the interface. When you have subdivisions, homes that are built out in the woods so to speak, or out in the prairies or rangelands, and there’s not the access, there’s not the water.”

His students have to work with homeowners in a wild-urban interface area to develop a plan, which includes keeping certain wild fuels away from structures.

Masters will be taking a group of UW Stevens Point students to Oklahoma during spring break, where they will be involved in training exercises in a different type of wildlands with more prairie grasses and fewer trees.

(Listen to our interview with Ron Masters on our website, here.)