Colorado State University fire ecology students trading sunburns for prescribed burns this spring break

Eleven members of Colorado State University’s Student Association for Fire Ecology will travel to Nebraska’s Niobrara Valley this month for an alternative spring break. They will assist The Nature Conservancy in conducting prescribed burns for the fourth annual Fire Learning Network training exchange. The students will be part of a group of 60 firefighters assembling from across Nebraska, Iowa, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington with the goal of completing 7,000 acres of controlled burns to support ecological restoration.

“The prescribed fire helps reduce red cedar encroachment in the shortgrass prairieland to improve habitat for species like gallinaceous birds,” says CSU SAFE President Kevin Moriarty, a graduate student and research assistant with CSU’s Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship in the Warner College of Natural Resources. “We are also improving grazing opportunities by removing thatch and top-killing native grasses to enhance their vigor.”

The students will get firsthand training and experience working on a prescribed burn team and will have the opportunity to build relationships with natural resource agencies and professionals from across the country. The first two days of the experience are dedicated to intensive training, then students will spend the rest of the week working in 10- to 12-hour shifts to help meet the project goal. The trip will cost about $150 per member, and the students raised funds for the trip through club dues, volunteering with Ram Ride, from support of faculty, and with their own money.

“This opportunity is unique because it allows the students to gain supervised wildland firefighter training and experience,” said Nick Dannemiller, a current member of SAFE and CSU wildlife biology freshman. “The whole experience of camping, working through the night and getting to contribute to a real-life ecological project is really rewarding and exciting.”

Dannemiller first learned about SAFE while attending Warner College of Natural Resources’ Involvement Fair in the fall of 2012. Originally from Oregon, he had always been interested in forestry and wildfire ecology. He was happy to find a club where he could explore this passion and learn from new experiences with a diverse group of students who shared his interest.

“SAFE is a unique club because it interests a wide range of students and majors from across the university, not just fire science or forestry majors. Fire impacts trees, water, people, animals, fish, agriculture – it is universal,” said Dannemiller. “And, even if you don’t want to be a fire ecologist as a career, you can gain great experience that you can apply to whatever you want to do.”

Colorado State University has a deep-rooted history and legacy in fire ecology. The forestry program dates back to 1904, and its SAFE club is one of the leading university clubs in the country. Working to build the club’s national reputation, eight members traveled to the fifth International Fire Ecology and Management Congress held in Portland, Ore., during December 2012. CSU SAFE hosted a special session at the conference featuring a lineup of CSU fire ecology researchers – strengthening the university’s reputation as a leader in fire ecology research and education. The SAFE members had the opportunity to make connections with leading fire ecologists from around the world and also hosted a booth representing CSU and its fire ecology programs.

While at the conference, Moriarty was elected president of National SAFE. In this position, he will work to improve partnerships and collaboration between university clubs across the country. Moriarty has worked hard to build the club and organize rewarding networking opportunities and activities for its members.

Also instrumental to the student organization’s success has been the support and mentoring of Assistant Professor Chad Hoffman and Department Head and Professor Skip Smith, both with the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, and Associate Professor Monique Rocca of Warner College’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. Hoffman and Rocca serve as faculty advisors to the club and have provided the students with access to enriching learning and professional opportunities.

“This club has a great and dynamic group of students who are really passionate about understanding fire ecology and its role in the ecological management of our landscapes,” said Hoffman. “Because fire ecology is so broad reaching, it gives students from all kinds of majors a chance to interact and learn from each other and see how the environment and their studies intersect.”

Currently, CSU SAFE has about 20 active members, both undergraduates and graduates. In the future, SAFE hopes to expand its membership and recruit more undergraduate students from all different majors at CSU. The club hosts monthly meetings, usually the first Wednesday of the month, and sponsors a seminar series throughout the year. To find out more, visit

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