Beyond the Lab: Talking Fire with Vern Northrup, Damon Panek and Kurt Kipfmueller

Fire panelists

Vern Northrup, retired Fire Operations Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fond du Lac Band elder

Damon PanekWildfire Operations Specialist for the Fond du Lac Band

Kurt KipfmuellerAssociate Professor of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota

Event overview

Wildfires are in the news now more than ever. Yet, attempting to eliminate fire from the landscape - the dominant U.S. Forest Service policy for decades - is not the answer. In fact, policies of full fire suppression, instituted in the early 1900s, have only contributed to the unhealthy forest conditions which produce many of today's destructive wildfires.

Vern fire photo
Photo courtesy of Vern Northrup

During a panel discussion, fire experts Vern Northrup and Damon Panek and dendrochronologist Dr. Kurt Kipfmueller will talk about good fire. Long before colonization, Indigenous peoples across North America have viewed the act of burning as a tool to manage the landscape and as a culturally significant practice that forms part of a reciprocal relationship with the environment. Vern and Damon will discuss cultural fire and Indigenous fire stewardship, the factors that prevent cultural and prescribed burning today, and more. Kurt will provide insights gained from his work documenting fire histories in the Boundary Waters and across the Great Lakes region.

In addition to the panel discussion, this event will feature a showing of the 15-minute documentary Oshkigin Spirit of Fire. The event will end with an audience Q & A, so please bring your questions for our fire experts!

About the speakers

Vern 2

Vern Northrup spent 24 years as a Fire Operations Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working on wildfires both across the West and close to home in Minnesota. Vern is a Fond du Lac Band elder and a visual storyteller, with his photography and words featured in his book Akinomaage: Teaching from the Earth and in a traveling exhibit which has been shown across the state.


Damon Panek is the Wildfire Operations Specialist for the Fond du Lac Band and has been involved in fire since 2001. Before stepping into his current role, Damon worked as the Ojibwe Cultural Specialist for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where he headed a program seeking to restore cultural fire practices to Stockton Island. This landmark program successfully encouraged the National Park Service, the federal land management agency which oversees the Apostle Islands, to embrace traditional cultural knowledge. This program underscored that cultural burning isn’t just about ecology - but rather about the identity of the Ojibwe as a people connected to the landscape, with fire as a major component of this reciprocal relationship.


Kurt Kipfmueller is an Associate Professor of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. Kurt uses tree rings to reconstruct and better understand past environments, and has conducted extensive work mapping the historical presence of wildfires across the Great Lakes region.

Please note: This event is the second in a two-part series about fire. Watch Dr. Sally Thompson (University of Western Australia) discuss managed wildfire impacts on vegetation and water in the Sierra Nevada.

Beyond the Lab

This two-part fire series is the first in SAFL's Beyond the Lab series. We love learning from prominent figures in environmental science and fluid mechanics, just as we recognize the value in examining any issue, idea, or area of study from a multitude of perspectives. The Beyond the Lab series is being developed to do just this: enriching our understanding of environmental science and fluid mechanics while situating these concepts - in this case, about fire - in a holistic context. First, we heard from Dr. Sally Thompson, an expert in ecohydrology, about fire-water-biodiversity connections at a study site in California; now, we turn to Vern Northrup, Damon Panek and Kurt Kipfmueller to further our understanding of fire as a culturally and ecologically significant practice on the landscape.

Do you have an idea for a Beyond the Lab series? Email Clare at

Start date
Tuesday, March 15, 2022, 3 p.m.

This is a hybrid event.

Attend in-person: St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, 2 Third Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414


Watch the Recording