Editor’s note: Bradley Massey (he/him) is a forestry student at Alabama A&M University, originally from Huntsville, Alabama. He is an USDA/1890 National Scholar, and a co-founder of the FireGeneration Collaborative. As a special guest author for our blog, Bradley shares his experiences entering into the world of fire, how he’s developing his role as a leader in this space, and some actionable steps anyone can take to support emerging leaders and voices in fire. Blog cover photo: Bradley Massey monitoring an Rx burn at Winfred-Thomas Agricultural Research Station. Photo captured by Helen Czech.

Sometimes, solutions come from unexpected places. My journey encompasses my experience at my Historically Black University in Alabama, a student congress in Idaho, and an emerging organization of young people called the FireGeneration Collaborative. I see these as unexpected sources of innovation and hope within the fire realm.

Are any of these a silver bullet for adaptation? Not exactly. But the meat and potatoes is that these programs bring people and ideas to the fire space who are often unheard and under-involved. I’ll share how it feels to be a part of these programs, and what we can learn from them to support more resilient lands and communities.

Context: My Introduction to Fire

I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, as the first in my family to take a keen interest in the outdoors. My parents, who I would call city folks, work in math and engineering. I learned fishing from one grandma, and grew up admiring the 70-year-old pine tree in my other gram’s backyard. After high school I took up hunting, and stumbling through woods across different forest types, I became captivated by Alabama’s mixed hardwood forest ecosystems. 

In my teens, I knew I wanted to go to college, but I did not know about forestry at that time. At 23, I decided to enroll in Alabama A&M University. Now at 26, I am entering my final years as a student there. A&M, as we call it, is one of the few Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with a nationally-accredited forestry program. This program fuels a focus on fire and its role in forest management. Outside class, I was offered a chance to make a few bucks checking out backpack pumps and other fire gear for the school. Soon after, I was invited to a prescribed burn.

I started out as an observer; little PPE, just cowboy boots, jeans, and a shirt. But thanks to my job, I knew what a backpack pump was, and how to offer some support. The flames reminded me of an almost innate affinity for fire. 

On the burn, I loved hearing the crackling of the fire going by and seeing it move across the landscape. Watching the process of the land becoming black, and weeks later, it’s all green again. The “fire bug” that instills this curiosity is real. It bites people, and it bit me. Afterwards, I kept asking folks “when’s our next burn?” That’s how I got involved with the FireDawgs.

Program 1: The Alabama A&M FireDawgs

Legend has it that seeds for the A&M Fire Program, or the FireDawgs (named after our mascot) took root when students helped out on a spot fire, received news recognition, and brought ideas for fire involvement back to campus. More definitively, it’s a 14 year plus history of collaboration between A&M, the Alabama Forestry Commission, and the U.S. Forest Service. During its beginning, it was deemed the first program of its kind, creating a crew of students and providing them fire certifications to support local response, prescribed burn, and disaster relief efforts. After graduation, students are ready for careers in land and fire management.

Six people in fire gear (yellow shirts, green pants, hardhats, backpacks, and tools) stand in front of a large white truck outside in the woods with a house in the background. The people are smiling and looking at the camera.

Alabama A&M FireDawgs respond to a wildfire, Bradley Massey at right. Photo by Jeremy Whigham.

As I got more involved in the FireDawgs myself, I enjoyed being helpful. I learned when you show up regularly, it gets easier to put yourself out there. I became the President of the Forestry Club, and by virtue of the role, a co-captain for the FireDawgs. It was my first time ever in a leadership role. Now, when we do a burn, I’m often given the drip torch, and I’m the one starting it. 

I love feeling the heat, and the smell. I come home with the smoke smell in my hair. Holding that drip torch, I appreciate feeling the weight of the fuel in there, walking around and seeing the fire drip out. I get the confidence of knowing I’m safe, while having this power in my hand and using it for the good of the land. 

Our FireDawgs too have become part of a larger pack. There’s the Clemson Fire Tigers, and the Kentucky Fire Cats. Most of these campus-based programs exist in the Southeast Region, but the FireDawgs are getting nationally recognized. This year, we were featured by the Forest Service, the Associated Press, and picked up in NBC News and the Washington Post.

As attention grows, I see potential for these programs to spread to more HBCUs and go out West to become a vital part of community resilience frameworks. Oftentimes, it takes dedicated, qualified individuals to get these programs started. It takes working with relevant departments in universities or community colleges, local agencies, and private landowners. I believe it’s something that fire practitioners should consider: to expand place-based capacity, diversify the workforce, and pass their knowledge forward.

Program 2: The John Freemuth Student Congress

Around last summer, after some time in the FireDawgs, I got accepted to a fire-themed Student Congress in Boise, Idaho. It was my first time out West, and my first plane flight since the 4th grade. 

On day one, I felt like a fish out of water. Everyone was from different regions, and I was one of the only few from the South. The West seemed to me like the place where the “actual fires” happen, but I felt comfortable amid the scenery.

Group of thirty or so people stand smiling in front of the camera in front a building that says National Interagency Fire Center.

Entire 2022 John Freemuth Student Congress pictured in front of the National Interagency Fire Center Headquarters in Boise, Idaho. Photo from Public Lands Foundation.

During our field trip to the National Interagency Fire Center Headquarters, the air was fresh and cool. At 2,700 feet up, Boise is higher than the whole state of Alabama. I introduced myself to a retired Forest Service researcher, and turns out he had been stationed at A&M a couple years before my time. He introduced me the ponderosa pine (
Pinus ponderosa). It’s something we don’t see where I’m from. I’m familiar with the ole’ loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Then another student told me a ponderosa secret — I put my nose up to the bark, and realized it smelled like vanilla. You can’t get that in Alabama, unless it’s Blue Bell!

Back to the meat and potatoes. My inspiring partners and I constructed a report of recommendations, called “People-Focused Fire Culture”. It focused on topics at the top of young minds, which managers may be distanced from: for example, to increase fire management interest, we must begin with teaching fire ecology and Indigenous fire histories in school. The group even recommended that elective programs like the FireDawgs be expanded around the country.

This kind of event is rare: a free trip for students that brings our generation and current leadership together. It empowers people and ideas in spaces where we never otherwise have a voice. When the week was up, it was over. I believe if the fire world wants to truly prepare, learn from, and pass knowledge to the next generation, this collaboration should be continuous. And that is part of the mission of the final program.

Program 3: The FireGeneration Collaborative

A month after Boise, I was on another flight — to meet with the Chief of the Forest Service, the DOI Fire Leadership, and Congress representatives in Washington D.C. It was an effort that had taken off after the Student Congress — young people wanted a formal seat at the table.

I was going with a group of new friends, two of whom I had met in Idaho. We were quickly becoming like family — we’d been meeting every week, some of them waking up at 6 am on Tuesday mornings for our calls.

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting screen with eight people's video images in three rows, all smiling at the camera.

Weekly FireGen meeting. Top row: Tim Ingalsbee, Kyle Trefny, Ayuthea LaPier. Middle row: Ilse Stacklie-Vogt, Bradley Massey, Ian Browne. Bottom row: Alyssa Worsham, Ryan Reed.

Our grassroots group had asked organizations around the country if they felt that young generations, the ones who will face the full weight of intensifying fires and climate, the ones who are depended on to expand and carry solutions, deserve a formal seat in the decisions we are most impacted by. The answer was resounding.

Experts, organizations, and students from over half the country signed on to our “Letter to National Leaders” in a matter of days. We brought it to D.C. I’ll never forget walking into the Forest Service office, knowing the history of my people fighting for a seat at these tables, and seeing Black leadership represented. HBCU alums, even from my own school, were in the office. When we sat down, leadership took interest. They asked how this collaboration might look, and we planned follow-up discussions.

Seven people stand in a wood paneled room wearing formal business attire and smiling at the camera.

FireGen in the Chief’s office. Left to right: John Crockett, Ryan Reed, Chief Randy Moore, Bradley Massey, Kyle Trefny, Alyssa Worsham, Tim Ingalsbee.

After D.C., our young group, FireGeneration Collaborative, decided to establish itself to grow the momentum. Since then, we joined WonderLabs’
Living with Fire Design Challenge, became a fiscally-sponsored org, initiated a Next Generation panel for the Wildland Fire Management Commission, developed an ongoing research project, wrote policy recommendations, and had our Director, Indigenous fire practitioner Ryan Reed, appointed to the Northwest Forest Plan Committee. 

Just this summer, the EPA launched the first National Youth Advisory Council in a federal agency. We hope land management agencies will work with us while we grow, to develop similar spaces. If you want to support, you can donate, fill out our community interest form, or get in touch with us by email. It makes a big difference for emerging groups like ourselves.

Unexpected Solutions

Is there a silver bullet here? Sometimes, involvement and solutions are in the places they weren’t expected to be found. Perhaps the unexpectedness is what needs to change. To make fire education and training, underrepresented involvement, and intergenerational decisions not the rarity, but the norm. I have great passion for these programs, and I hope we can all learn from them to support resilient communities, and a more complete fire family in the years ahead.


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