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.