First UW-Stevens Point wildland fire graduate uses fire to benefit wildlife
Dan Harrington, St. Croix Falls, will be the first wildland fire science graduate from
UW-Stevens Point May 17. ​

Dan Harrington was five or six years old when his grandfather first started taking him to Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in western Wisconsin’s Burnett County. 

His family lived 40 miles away, and his grandfather, Chet Anderson, was a frequent volunteer at Crex Meadows. By the time Harrington started high school, he was counting sandhill cranes to estimate breeding pairs, banding trumpeter swans to track mortality and listening for owl surveys.

So it’s not surprising that Harrington chose the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to pursue a degree in wildlife ecology. And after completing a bachelor’s degree in May 2013, he returned to the College of Natural Resources last fall to pursue a second major. 

He will be the first student to complete a new wildland fire science option in natural resource management. The major was created to meet a growing need for wildland fire professionals.  

Wildland fire science involves understanding fire as a tool to manage ecosystems. “Fire is a normal part of the natural environment,” Harrington said, and a key part of sound forest management. 

Fire rejuvenates plant communities, such as prairie grasses and early-succession shrubs and trees, which are important habitat for wildlife – which is important to hunters. Freshly burned areas have higher nutrients.  

The Department of Natural Resources has used prescribed burns to manage habitat for sharp-tailed grouse at Crex Meadows since 1948. This is the largest state-owned property managed with prescribed fire. 

“Because this is the only realistic way to provide good habitat, I wanted to learn how fire can be used safely to maintain other wildlife populations,” Harrington said. 

Associate Professor Ron Masters, who developed the wildland fire science program at UW-Stevens Point, is proud of Harrington. “There could not have been a better student to be the first graduate in this program,” he said. “Early on I was impressed with his eagerness to learn.”  

In addition to coursework, Harrington participated in four prescribed burn trips to Oklahoma and Florida. Masters organized spring break trips to Oklahoma for the UWSP Fire Crew to burn 20 research units as part of a long-term study on fire frequency as well as ecosystem restoration burns totaling 500 acres. 

“How often fire is used directly determines what grows back in the long-term and tree density,” Harrington said. 

This year, he was a crew leader for Masters’ fire experience course and successful mentor, Masters said. “He took on each challenge with relish and has gained some excellent experience with fire in a wide variety of fuel types.  He is level headed and kept his composure in all situations.” 

Students get experience lighting fires, monitoring weather and wind, using radios and preventing fire from leaving the area. 

Harrington completed firefighting certification in his second year at UW-Stevens Point and has been part of the UWSP Fire Crew. 

“Dan is an exceptional student.   He has all the makings of a life-long learner. He is naturally inquisitive, highly self-motivated and a diligent and efficient worker.”  

Harrington said he appreciated the enthusiasm and interpersonal wisdom Masters and other professors shared. Building relationships, he learned, was an important aspect of resource management.  “Just about every class touched on the need to proactively communicate -- with landowners, with the public -- to discuss options, because there are multiple ways to get to the same goal.” 

He will intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Richmond this summer and hopes to eventually work for a federal or state agency, the Aldo Leopold Center or Nature Conservancy. 

“Dan has the capability of making a significant mark in natural resource management,” Masters said.   


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