Mark Vance: Composing with fire | TheUnion.com
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Mark Vance: Composing with fire

Twelve music composition students visited a US Forest Service prescribed burn just east of Nevada City this last Monday. This was a unique opportunity for these middle and high schoolers to see what goes on during a prescribed burn firsthand. With the staggering number of wildfires up and down the west coast, students are exploring why the fires are occurring and what can be done to help prevent them.

Joe Flannery, Jacoby Waters and Staci Dickson from the Forest Service explained how important prescribed burning is as a form of forest management where fire is intentionally applied as broadcast burning and/or pile burning to remove fuel sources. For both types of fires, managers usually compose a detailed prescribed burn plan that clearly defines the suitable weather and fuel conditions, the desired fire behavior, and the effects needed to meet predetermined objectives. Prescribed fires are conducted under desired conditions to meet specific objectives, such as to restore fire regimes or to limit the amount of dry brush in an area prone to wildfires.

“Prescribed fires are a necessary step to create more resilience in our forests to disease, drought, and high-intensity wildfire,” said Joe Flannery, Tahoe National Forest Public Affairs Officer. “The forest visited by the composition students, and this entire portion of the Sierra Nevada, is part of a fire-adapted ecosystem. That is, the ecosystem evolved along with regular returns of low-intensity fire. Prescribed fires can simulate that. Hopefully these young students’ generation will not only continue using prescribed but find new ways to expand its use so we can have forests for generations to come.”



The field trip was part of an interdisciplinary curriculum InConcert Sierra’s Composers Project employs through the second semester of their nine-month course. This curriculum empowers students to learn more about the community they live in and use these experiences as inspiration for the music they will be composing. This year, these students are learning about the increasing number of wildfires along the west coast, what’s causing them, and what can be done to help prevent them.

This year’s curriculum has also included an impressive list of Zoom presentations including retired West Sacramento firefighter Alex Henderson, retired CAL FIRE and chief investigator Ken Hale, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association and a former member of the California State Assembly Rich Gordon, Professor at Chico State University in the Department of Geologic and Environmental Sciences and Program Director for The Sierra Fund Carrie Monohan, and retired Battalion Chief for CAL FIRE and contractor for the North American River Shaded Fuel Break Chris Paulus.



Last year, students volunteered and worked with the nonprofit Sierra Harvest and created inspired compositions about farming, the water cycle, insects, and growing plants. Their final concert (still on YouTube) demonstrates the impact of finding inspiration in the world around us. Creative titling such as “The Life of a Strawberry Plant,” “The Garden’s Lullaby,” and “Cloudburst,” are such examples.

“It’s been difficult this year with the quarantine in place. This is actually the first time this since last March that the class has been able to see each other in person,” says instructor Mark Vance. “It was good to get away from computer monitors and see the whole class learning together outdoors. I’m excited to see and hear the new music these talented composers are going to write inspired by these experiences.”

Stay tuned for a virtual concert of these works this coming July.

Mark Vance is the Educational Director for InConcert Sierra, a published composer, Executive Director of the Nevada County Composers Cooperative, a host of KVMR’s Classics DeClassified, and a long-time, very active, Nevada County resident.


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