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Jon Schwedler & Sam Lindblom, guest bloggers 7/11/2013

“Don’t play with fire.”
As kids, most of us heard that line. But what if your job is setting managed, controlled fires to benefit people, water and wildlife? How would you explain your job to your kids? Sam Lindblom is TNC's director of land management in Virginia. He trains fire workers in the Fire Learning Network, and is dad to two sons. Jon Schwedler is TNC's director of communications for the North America forest program.

Jon: How did you first get interested in the restorative power of fire for nature?
Sam: My first experiences came while backpacking as a young boy through the Conecuh National Forest near my hometown in south Alabama with my father, brother, and our Scout troop. It was an impressive sight to walk through burned areas and then cross a fireline and enter into a recently burned and beautiful longleaf pine savannah, complete with wiregrass, quail, bears and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. I came to realize that you can’t have one without the other.
I spent my summers during college as a backpacking Ranger in Northeastern New Mexico. Back then fire suppression was part of the gig and we were occasionally dispatched to extinguish lightning strikes up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What I loved most of all from those experiences was not only the hard work, but seeing the many patches of forests that had burned before, now covered in grasses and wildflowers, and generally, where we’d see the most wildlife.
Jon: And today you use controlled burns to achieve benefits for the outdoors?
Sam: My team works to maintain or create high-quality habitat, often for the benefit of rare and endangered species. Fire is a major shaper of ecosystems, and we can restore it successfully. That’s why we focus so much on fire management. So everything involved with fire — the places we burn, wildfires, fire-ecology research, planning, equipment, training — is part of my job. I also work with our agency partners to secure funding, and we help each others conduct fires on our respective lands. The Nature Conservancy has been doing these kinds of controlled burns for more than 50 years.
Jon: You were with your own father when you saw fire’s effect in the woods. Now as a father yourself, do you think that your kids understand how, and why, you use fire to restore the outdoors?
Sam: They do, sort of. When I tuck the boys in the night before heading to a fire, I tell them, “Daddy’s headed out to a fire early in the morning and I’ll be home as soon as possible.” Generally, my youngest son wants to know if it's a "good" or a "bad" fire.
Thankfully, the vast majority of those I work on are "good" fires --they are planned and well-executed controlled burns, or are the result of remote lightning strikes in large unfragmented landscapes far from towns. These types of fires are critical to the health of our wild places. Less frequently, but still common, are destructive megafires that harm or threaten communities and properties.
When I return, my oldest usually wants to know if I flew in the helicopter or did something exciting, but our controlled burns are usually what we call “spectacular non-events.” They're fun to watch and execute, but boring in the sense that all the firelines are safe. That’s how we like them. My youngest always gives me a hug and says, “You smell like smoke!” He says that he likes the smell, and frankly, I do, too.
Jon: When your kids are grown, what do you hope they’ll see as a result of your work?
Sam: I hope more than anything that they’ll grow up knowing there are wild places out there that are healthy, that natural processes occur, that wildlife and vegetation are dynamic and healthy, and that these places are all around and intrinsically linked to human health. I want my children not only to appreciate them but to visit them frequently. Maybe they will pursue the same career paths, though that’s not necessary.
For me it’s not about the fire, it’s about the places, the landscapes that support our natural heritage. I hope my children grow up with the same ethic.