By Leah VanSyckel ’16
Photography by Ashley Jones & Josh Wilson

Helen Mohr ’97, M ’02 is the driving force behind Clemson’s Fire Tigers program, one of the nation’s only extracurricular wildland firefighting programs in higher education.

She is also the creator and program coordinator of Clemson University’s Fire Tigers, a 15-member extracurricular group that gives students the opportunity to learn how to use fire responsibly in land management and how to fight wildfires. Using her own experience with fighting fires and practicing controlled burns, Mohr is bringing students to the fire line with her. “Everything I learned about fire I learned on the fire line,” Helen Mohr says. “Yes, I saw it remain true in research, but I saw it first face to face.” A forester with the U.S. Forest Service, Mohr has spent more than 20 years working with fire as a firefighter, a researcher, a communicator and a mentor.

WOMAN OF THE WOODS

In the 1980s, Mohr grew up in Oconee County, South Carolina, on her family’s 25 acres — paradise for a child who loved to wander freely among the trees and wildlife. In 1993, she followed her heart to Clemson, where programs wouldn’t force her to trade her love of the outdoors for a desk job.

Initially studying conservation, Mohr grew fascinated with the science behind it: ecology — a comprehensive understanding of nature and the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. After getting her bachelor’s degree in forest resource management, Mohr moved on to a job in the Forest Service, working under Tom Waldrop ’78, M ’80, a well-known research forester with the Center for Forest Disturbance Science based in Clemson. 

When Waldrop was in the Forest Service, he focused his research on the science behind prescribed fires, providing land and fire managers with invaluable information on how to adjust their practices and techniques to match the science behind the effects of fire. Mohr still calls on her mentor, even in his retirement. “He’s amazing,” she says. “He taught me everything I know.”

In 2002, Mohr graduated with a master’s in forest research management and continued working with the Forest Service. Throughout, her research has explored the impact of fire on ecosystems in the southern Appalachians.  

“It takes a long time for a tree to grow,” Mohr says. “I have dedicated my entire professional life to asking, ‘How can we use fire to [manage the land] better?’” She also applies her knowledge practically by helping the Forest Service at Sumter National Forest in Upstate South Carolina with controlled burns and fighting uncontrolled fires, commonly called wildfires.

Mohr says she experienced the defining moment of her career at 22. She was running errands in her first job for the U.S. Forest Service in a logo-emblazoned truck.

“An older gentleman stopped me on my way into the Lowe’s parking lot. He said, ‘Ma’am, I want to know how you’re using my tax dollars today.’ 

“Right then and there,” Mohr says, “I told him.” She took 30 minutes to explain how wildland research reduces the incidence of catastrophic fire and how that benefits civilians as well as the land.

“From that point forward, I realized that my work was — and still is — a big deal. Now, I don’t ever take that responsibility lightly.”

“I fear that interest in our discipline is changing because of screen time and lack of outdoor time,” Mohr says. “As well, there are many people retiring from the field.”

FUTURE OF FIRE SCIENCE

With the rise of the digital age, youth are spending less time outside and more time on electronic media. A 2018 study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and Clemson found that even children in rural areas are starting to spend more time in front of screens than they are playing outdoors. While technology exposure shouldn’t be cast aside, Mohr says, people need a healthy balance between technology and nature. She worries that balance hasn’t been found yet in modern society and, because of that, the future of fire science is precarious.

“I fear that interest in our discipline is changing because of screen time and lack of outdoor time,” she says. “As well, there are many people retiring from the field.”

Concerned that institutional knowledge — fire science expertise stored only in the minds of those like Waldrop, her peers and herself — and the strides made toward a healthy use of fire science will disappear, Mohr became committed to finding the future leaders of land management. With her on-campus office, thanks to a partnership funded by the federal government, and connections to the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, Mohr saw Clemson students as part of a potential solution. 

Mohr teamed up with Wes Bently, her National Forest System counterpart in Sumter National Forest, and gathered additional support from University faculty to get Fire Tigers started. Students interested in joining the group must meet two primary qualifications: the time to participate and a strong physical constitution. 

Students are drawn to the Fire Tigers program for myriad reasons. Sophomore Caroline Sharpe grew up with a healthy respect for the raw power of fire and its effects in nature.

“Finding the Fire Tigers was finding my people,” Sharpe says. “I’m a third-generation firefighter, and I volunteer with the Clemson Fire Department. As a wildlife and fisheries biology major, I see how learning about fire in a different context will help me be a better land manager.”

If they have time in their schedules and can meet the physical demands, students complete a weeklong course taught by a cadre of experts and pass the same “pack test” that Mohr and her Forest Service colleagues had to pass — 45 pounds of gear on their backs over 3 miles at a quick pace. The exercise mimics carrying firefighter packs, which contain a fire shelter, gloves, water, food, flares, sunglasses, a radio, a cellphone, batteries, a hard hat, a drip torch and a hand tool.

“I want them to feel what I’ve felt over my career,” Mohr says. “The only way I know how is to show them the way.”

To become certified wildland firefighters, the students must meet difficult physical and educational standards set by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group. Annual refreshers are required to maintain certification. After all that, it’s just a matter of showing up. It’s as simple as responding “me” to a group message from Mohr that reads, “My office, 6 a.m., I need three students for a fire in Sumter. Who wants to go?” That’s when the one-on-one mentorship with students begins.

CONTROLLED BURN

Fire Tigers isn’t all about fighting fire. It’s about using it, too. 

A prescribed burn, also known as a controlled burn, has several purposes, the main one being to reduce the risk of disastrous wildfires. Over time, fuels like grasses, shrubbery, dead flora and litter build up in forests. This accumulation of fuels can be a recipe for wildfires, started naturally or by humans, especially if the area’s land managers practice fire suppression in a misguided attempt to prevent wildfires. Just like a vaccine injected into a healthy person, controlled burns prevent wildfire by using a smaller, controlled fire to eliminate these dangerous fuels.  

Rather than practice the intuitive but dangerous method of fire suppression, Mohr teaches students the importance of controlled burns and how to carry them out safely and correctly. With the high stakes involved when dealing with fire, there is no room for error. Fire Tigers students who take on controlled burn opportunities must follow the same Forest Service guidelines, rules, certifications and organizational systems that Forest Service rangers and wildland firefighters must follow. Called the Incident Command System, it is so effective that it was adopted for federal natural disaster response and catastrophic event cleanup. 

From start to finish, Mohr guides students through the process, beginning with the key steps that must be taken before a fire is set: checking weather conditions, approval of a dedicated burn plan, inspections by a plant specialist and archaeologist, a plan to contain the fire and contingencies to ensure that it doesn’t get out of control. 

After fires, the Fire Tigers team debriefs on what worked, what didn’t and other thoughts and reflections. Sometimes, the debriefs will be moments of vulnerability where students express fears and admit mistakes.

Lane Whitmire, a junior, has internalized his own conclusions from these fires and subsequent meetings: “Fire should not be feared. It should be respected.”

“I have learned more from Mohr than I’ll ever realize,” Whitmire says. “I hope to manage lands better and work on fires. I want to ensure we have healthy ecosystems for generations to come, and fire is an essential part of those.”

FIREPROOF

Most of the students in Fire Tigers spend their summers working at major-related internships or other typical seasonal gigs. But a few also make time to be on call as wildland firefighters for uncontrolled fires out West. In fact, Sharpe was hoping to test her own skills in Colorado, which experienced a record number of acres damaged by uncontrolled fire this year. She wasn’t called but still hopes for the chance to fight wildfires in the future. 

Jonathan Anderson ’19, a U.S. Army veteran who graduated from the forestry program in May, spent the summer of 2018 working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Dixie National Forest in southern Utah. While he is a strong proponent of controlled burns, which he describes as “maintenance fires,” the chance to work on what he calls a “big kid’s fire” made him appreciate his work with controlled burns. Working out of Panguitch, Utah, Anderson went on fire assignments to northern Utah, southern Idaho and central Nevada. 

He values the work he was able to do with Fire Tigers. Being in the group, he says, allows students “to work alongside professional firefighters. These people have many years of experience on a hotshot crew, helitack crew or as smokejumpers. We get to learn from their vast experience while on the fire line.” 

This summer, Anderson heads to Wyoming to begin his career as a forester, working in the Laramie Ranger District of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.

In Mohr’s vision for the future of her program, she sees the possibility of Fire Tigers sending a complete squad of trained students for two weeks to help fight wildfires during high season in the West. This same squad would also be able to supplement Eastern efforts to fight wildfires throughout other parts of the year. Mohr knows that teamwork is essential to making wildland firefighters effective and safe, which is why she’s considering this direction for several years down the road. 

“Every person has a role, a job,” she says. “The beauty of the fire is that it has a life of its own. What gives us confidence controlling that life are the boundaries we enact. However, we recognize we’re on the cusp of danger. The day we are no longer afraid of the fire is the day we hang up our hats.”

The fire line forges a bond among firefighters that has its own strength against the fire. Mohr remarks on the relationships she has with Forest Service co-workers, hoping to produce the same thing within Fire Tigers: “You bond in special ways, day after 16-hour day. I trust them with my life.”

GENERATIONS TO COME

As long as there are forests, foresters, land managers and firefighters will be needed to care for them. The future of these positions and, by extension, these ecosystems rests in the hands of groups like Fire Tigers. With leaders like Mohr to guide them, they’ll have the tools to succeed, but the importance of education on proper land management cannot be overestimated. 

Mohr is committed to raising awareness of the dangers of untended forests, the proper use of fire and the needs of the environment. Fire Tigers will have what it takes, figuratively and literally, to carry the torch.  

“I have learned more from Mohr than I’ll ever realize,” Whitmire says. “I hope to manage lands better and work on fires. I want to ensure we have healthy ecosystems for generations to come, and fire is an essential part of those.” 

Leah VanSyckel ’16 is a freelance writer in Liberty, S.C.

2 replies
  1. David Robinett says:

    That is a strong and valuable mission, Helen! Way to go in leaving a legacy that helps out our Mother Earth.
    Go (Fire 🔥) Tigers!

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