Behind the Nomex: SCA Fire Crew in 2010

March 2010: It’s no surprise that the Student Conservation Association crew helping Georgia DNR and The Nature Conservancy with prescribed burning this year featured young people with a fire for conservation. Here’s a closer look.

Carly Monahan, Burn Crew Leader

As a kid growing up in Milwaukee, Wis., I spent most of my free outside with neighborhood friends, building backyard forts and searching for unfamiliar critters living in the dirt. As my little legs grew longer, family cross-country skiing outings in Milwaukee county parks and walks to the beach turned into week-long backpacking trips and ski camping in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine forests. Soon, I was seeking adventure away from home, my parents happy to see that I had absorbed their love for the outdoors—and a strong environmental ethic, as well.

The time I spent exploring the outdoors as a kid, learning to love and respect the natural world, was instrumental in shaping the path I've taken since high school. I attended Lawrence University, in the Fox River Valley of central Wisconsin, studying environmental science and sustainability. Throughout my time there, I sought out as many field-based courses as possible, took part in multiple tutorials and created independent study courses to create a more holistic look at sustainability issues and the fields of study that address them. I spent a semester with the School for International Training in New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia, on a field-based study abroad program entitled “Sustainability and the Environment.”

College offered an abundance of opportunities to help me explore and expand my interests and I served as a trip leader for the Outdoor Recreation Club, volunteered with nearby elementary school's science programs, and helped implement and run a small vegetable garden on campus to supplement the produce in the dining halls.

By the end of four years, I still hadn't decided what “sustainable” path I would follow: environmental education, sustainable agriculture or natural resource conservation. However, I had solidified my conviction that I would be happiest and most productive working outdoors in a sustainability-oriented career. After graduation, I returned to a 10-acre organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in the St. Croix River Valley in eastern Minnesota, where I had spent previous summers as an agriculture apprentice, helping produce vegetables, eggs and goat's milk. From there, I spent a year as an elementary school teacher-naturalist at a farm and wilderness preserve in the hills of central California.

I returned to Wisconsin for a short time where I continued my interest in sustainable food production as a produce manager at a small natural foods store in the town where I attended college. Soon, though, I felt an itch to explore new parts of the country and headed down to Georgia last winter as an intern on the DNR/Student Conservation Association fire crew. By the time I left last March, I had caught the fire bug and spent the summer as an intern with the prescribed fire program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Madison, Wis. Burning in the prairies and savannas I had visited growing up was an incredible experience and I hope to burn in Wisconsin sometime again. But for now, I've found myself back in Georgia, leading this year's SCA intern crew!

Brett Boisjolie

I am 22-year-old, laid-back guy from Southampton, Mass., who loves the outdoors. I’m also really into bluegrass music, hackysack, running, hiking and climbing trees. My last name means "pretty woods" in French, which is fitting because I grew up on a 20-acre Christmas tree farm and have worked outside all my life.

I went to college at Stonehill College out by Boston, where I studied Environmental Studies and Communications with dreams of working for National Geographic. Since graduation I have become a full-time adventurer. After graduation I spent some time trudging through swamps, hiking through thorn bushes and swimming through rivers as a surveyor on a massive field study for The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut River program focusing on the link between altered hydrology and floodplain ecosystems.

Now, I'm moving from water to fire, looking to learn as much as possible about the natural world, so that I may continue to work for its betterment.

Lily Walter

I mainly grew up in Atlanta but my family moved to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., six years ago. For my undergraduate degree, I studied Anthropology and Women's Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania but after graduation quickly decided to pursue a career in vegetable farming. I have worked on two different farms in the past four years and I hope to own my own small, organic farm someday soon.

It is inspiring to be part of the current sustainable farming movement and to see the excitement and interest in local, organic agriculture grow in people across the U.S. Besides farming, I am interested in all things outdoors. I worked as part of a six-person wilderness trail crew in Northern California in 2008, a job that got me into backpacking and conservation work.

I am thrilled to be working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources fire crew this winter, and feel like I may have found my off-farming-season career! It is motivating to be working with such a dedicated team and to be learning about the many positive ecological effects of fire in Georgia.

Q&A with the Crew

Deep into the winter fire season, The Nature Conservancy asked crewmembers why they volunteered, how they expect the experience to shape their future in conservation and why a career in that field is important to them. Here are some of their answers.

Lily on volunteering:

One of the many positive aspects of being a seasonal farm employee in New England is that I have four months off to go someplace new during the long Massachusetts winters. When the opportunity to work with the Georgia DNR and TNC this winter came along, it was almost too good to be true: Not only was I going to get to flee the Northeastern cold, I was also going to have an outdoor conservation job that involved setting fire to the woods!

How could I resist?

Although I hardly knew anything about prescribed burning (and admittedly sometimes have trouble starting a fire in my own fireplace), I was eager to learn about fire ecology and to gain more hands-on conservation work experience. Having never been able to take an environmental science course in college, I was particularly excited to learn about the species and the ecosystems that benefit from fire.

Carly on the possible impact on her future in conservation:

While I'm still uncertain of what I'll be doing even five years from now, I certainly hope that fire is a part of it. I know that I will continue to work in the fields of conservation and land management, but where in the world and in what specific capacity, who knows?

Now that I've had a couple seasons involved in prescribed fire operations, I would like to broaden my understanding of and appreciation for fire by learning more about fire effects monitoring. My experience working with prescribed fire with the DNR and TNC has also helped me realize my interest in interagency projects and partnerships. As a result, I am beginning to look at working with an interagency Fire Use Module – a small team dedicated to projects involving prescribed fire, managing wildfires for resource benefits and fire effects monitoring.

Prescribed fire has been a really neat avenue for exploring Georgia and learning about new environments. This experience has reconfirmed my desire to be a part of conservation efforts focused on maintaining biodiversity, rare species and natural resources.

Brett on why a conservation career is important to him:

Etched deeply in me, carved into my character, are experiences in wilderness that have shaped my life. I recall moments of hiking with my father as a child, watching waterfalls roar, forests sprawl out as far as I could see, and mountaintops awash in the exploding colors of the setting sun. I remember my mother planting trees on our farm, and how I learned to love and respect life in all of its forms.

My life has been full of moments of calm and tranquil moon rises, clear skies for star gazing and being able to sit outside in the pleasant evening air and hear the chirping of insects and the hoot of owls, the clicks of insects and the calls of frog. It is full of memories of nature's power and force, of driving hailstorms, of racing home through claps of thunder, of towering flames, of crashing waves and flooded fields. I have seen nature in its many shapes and forms—familiar and fickle, strong and strange, creating and destroying, diverse but interconnected, always inspiring.

Conservation is important to me because it protects this world, and these experiences. It cradles something that is true, pure and honest. In preserving that, I find a sense of justice and importance, of clarity and purpose. In ensuring that generations’ future may experience this same marvelous force, I find my meaning.

It’s no surprise that the Student Conservation Association crew helping Georgia DNR and The Nature Conservancy with prescribed burning this year featured young people with a fire for conservation.