HBCUs Team Up With the U.S. Forest Service to Increase Diversity of Firefighters

Twenty students from historically Black universities are spending the summer as interns for the United States Forest Service at a firefighting academy in Hazel Green, Alabama. The students are trained in prescribed burns under instructors’ supervision. They clear paths, light fires, and make sure the fires are extinguished.

Florida A&M University, Southern University in Louisiana, Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Alabama A&M University have joined together with the U.S. Forest Service to create the 1890 Land Grant Institution Wildland Fire Consortium. The partnership is modeled after Alabama A&M University’s successful FireDawgs program, a student-led forest firefighting team created in 2009. Since its creation, the FireDawgs have mobilized for several wildfires, rescues, and prescribed burning operations in partnership with the Forest Service.

Hands-on training offers students their first experiences with live fire while under the instruction of experienced wildland firefighters. Students learn to use drip torches, a common tool for prescribed burning, as well as how to operate and maintain chainsaws safely. In addition to the practical skills, they also learn how fires behave under weather conditions and in different types of fuels, like in heavily wooded areas or in tall grass.

“Beyond the boots on the ground, students will be able to concentrate their studies in forest fire management, which eventually should create a more inclusive workforce,” said Darrius Truss, fire and heritage management staff officer for the National Forests in Alabama. “Having a pipeline of students pursuing an education in forestry and fire is crucial as the wildland fire crisis continues to rise.”

The Forest Service has approximately 13,000 employees including firefighters and other staff who respond to wildfires. About 1.3 percent are Black.

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