Editor’s note: McRee Anderson serves as the Director of the Interior Highlands Restoration Program for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, and Brigette Coleman-Williams serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications. McRee has led the South Central Fire Learning Network since the Fire Learning Network’s inception in 2002. The collaborative has been awarded over $51 million in federal funding for ecosystem restoration through sources including the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. In this post, McRee and Brigette cover the 10th International Fire Exchange, a program which invites conservation partners from across the globe to Arkansas to share skills and learning about fire management and conservation practices.

In the spring of 2023, The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas (TNC Arkansas) hosted a dozen colleagues and conservation partners from Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala, and Zambia during the 10th International Fire Exchange in Arkansas.  

Led by McRee Anderson, Director of the Interior Highlands Restoration Program since its inception, the International Fire Exchange aims to assist global fire management partners with continued development of fire ecology, fire management planning, and other skills. Similarities in the Arkansas woodland and savanna ecosystems to those in Colombia, the DRC, Guatemala, and Zambia mean that exchange participants gain critical hands-on skills applicable to managing the unique ecosystems in their home countries.

Not only do these exchanges provide training for international participants, they also benefit the Arkansas hosts. Visiting international conservation personnel enhance local personnel’s understanding of fire through the exchange of  new fire management techniques and controlled burn implementation.

A group of people in firefighting gear stand outside in a sunny wooded area smiling at the camera. They stand in front of a trailer that says

International Exchange participants with TNC Arkansas staff. Photo credit: TNC Arkansas

Since 1996, TNC Arkansas has understood the necessity of prescribed fire for the well-being of natural areas. The need to have well trained burn crews to implement controlled burns was also clear. As of 2022, TNC crews have completed more than 5,000 burns across the Natural State, reinvigorating thousands of acres of forests and other habitats.

In the past 23 years, TNC Arkansas has taught almost 1,000 students stateside and globally to properly plan and manage controlled burns. As experience and understanding of the effects of good fire has deepened, TNC Arkansas continues to be a leader in the area of fire management for conservation. McRee travels to Africa and South America annually to share best practices, as well as learn from local fire crews in the remote locations they manage with prescribed fire.

A person in firefighting gear stands holding a red drip torch in a forested area, lighting the ground on fire for a prescribed burn. Flames extend in front of them.

Rachel Manda, Senior Technician, Zambia Department of Forestry conducts a prescribed burn. Photo credit: TNC Arkansas

This year’s International Fire Exchange class of 12 participants arrived in Little Rock in May, loaded their bags with supplies, and immediately began the tour across the state. McRee, TNC fire crews, and state, federal, and municipal agencies provided meaningful training opportunities for participants. The group held discussions on forwarding community conservation efforts and operationalizing fire management for resiliency and long-term outcomes.

The international burn teams were actively engaged in implementing controlled burns, assessing impacts of short and long-term fire restoration, and discussions on various fire and forestry management techniques. The tightly packed 10-day exchange introduced them to a variety of peers working across Arkansas in forest conservation and fire management. At the conclusion of their training, participants presented an overview of fire management practices from their respective countries. Each provided insight into their successes and challenges, sparking discussion around the similarities and differences between different geographic areas.

Participants then attended a closing presentation reception, where guests were captivated by their stories of challenges and successes resulting from each country’s unique political, cultural and historical impacts on their work.

Eight people sit at tables in a conference room facing a presentation screen, where a woman is pointing at the screen.

Rachel Manda explains the structure of community fire training in Zambia conducted in the greater Kafue ecosystem. Photo credit: TNC Arkansas

The International Fire Exchange is an example of what it looks like to be a global fire community. The event gives participants important skills to take back to their home countries, educates Arkansas personnel about international conservation efforts, and builds relationships across countries, agencies, and other boundaries. McRee looks forward to continuing this unique program by welcoming a new class of participants to the 11th International Fire Management Exchange in 2024.

Our gratitude and appreciation to our partners at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Forest Service for their participation and support to make the 10th Anniversary of the International Fire Management Exchange week special. 


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