Fire is man’s burning passion



Terry Severson is the forest fire management officer at the Hoosier National Forest, but his work with flames has taken him across the globe. From teaching agroforestry courses with the Peace Corps to fighting wildfires on the west coast, the Tell City man’s passion has burned far and wide.

Now on the back-nine of his career, he aims to spark the hearts of a new generation.

“There are jobs, and there are careers,” said Severson, 59. “A career is something that you hopefully will leave a legacy behind.”

He hopes his legacy is written by leaving the places he’s worked in better conditions than when he found them.

At the nearby national forest, Severson’s activities are rooted in fire suppression and prescription. He puts out fires — about 80% of which are started by humans — and plans controlled burns to maintain the species in the 204,000-acre biome.

In many cases, the controlled fires are lit to perpetuate the oak and hickory populations that dominate the forest, Severson explained. He noted the makeup of the national forest — like other forests — came about by the use of fire “over eons, with fire as part of the system.”

“Fire has been part of how these forests were formed,” he said.

Maintaining with fire in favorable conditions helps prevent catastrophic wildfires, Severson added. A forest plan assembled by state and federal partners dictates his overall management strategy.

Part of his responsibilities as a trained wildland firefighter include responding to fires out west and national emergencies across the country.

“I don’t necessarily have to go, but I think it’s an obligation for us to go if we’re trained and they need our help,” he said. “And then, to be quite frank, even though I’ve been doing this for 30 years, there’s still a level of excitement every time I’m called out west on a fire.”

He grew up in Chicago, and once he finished high school, he went to work at Rust-Oleum, a paint manufacturer. The outdoors had always been a big part of his life, but he’d never seen them fitting into his career path.

Photo provided

One day, however, he saw an ad for a forest technology program at Southeastern Illinois College, and his path changed.

“It set the foundation for my career,” Severson said. “Because that two-year tech school is all hands-on. That school taught you hands-on techniques of how to handle the forest.”

Upon earning his associate degree, he joined the Peace Corps, and shipped to Kenya in East Africa. It was a watershed moment in his life, Severson said. That’s where he taught and implemented agroforestry techniques on farms, stressing the importance of growing trees with crops to limit deforestation.

He returned to the United States two years later and went to Southern Illinois University, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in forest management. He’s since managed fires for three federal agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. National Parks Service and the U.S. Forest Service — and he has also worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation and The Nature Conservancy nonprofit, which is the largest environmental organization in the world.

International opportunities facilitated by the Forest Service have taken him to the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years, allowing him to teach rural communities how to fight and control fires. Lightning strikes that lead to blazes are common in the DRC, Severson explained.

“So, they live in a fire ecosystem,” he said. “And so they need to learn how to live with fire and how to use fire to their benefit.”

Severson has also been dispatched to respond to national emergency situations, like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He doesn’t get to decide where he goes — he’s assigned to missions by necessity.

While on those journeys, he said locals are appreciative of the firefighters’ efforts. During wildfire responses, camps can have up to 1,000 firefighters in them.

“So, we’re really part of the community,” Severson said. “There’s usually an outpouring of support from the local community, where they have signs in town [that say], ‘Thank you, firefighters,’ or they’ll actually drive out to the fire and try to give us food or other things.”

He continued: “They’re just really thankful that we’re there. It’s certainly a good feeling to know you’re appreciated, but again, I feel for those folks. Because after two weeks, I get to come home to my house and my family” — his wife, Trina, and daughters Emma, 17, and Amani, 15.

Some might have lost their home. He feels for those who are going through those tough times. And he uses his skills and expertise to try to make a positive difference.

“I think we all have the desire to help those that are in need,” he said. “It’s just a way to do that.”

Now nearing the end of his career, Severson spends time speaking to groups of young people in hopes of inspiring the next generation, the one that will one day step up and fill fire and other natural resource management jobs across the country.

“This workforce and fire management is aging,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of young people in the funnel to keep feeding this need. So, there’s going to be a shortage of firefighters in the future if we don’t do something about it.”

More on