Laura Webster grew up on a beef cattle and tobacco farm in Mecklenburg County, a large slice of heaven in south-central Virginia that hugs the North Carolina line.

Working on the family-run farm taught her a work ethic at a young age. She also learned to value the land and all that it offered, so when she enrolled at Virginia Tech, she ultimately decided to earn a degree in forestry and pursue a career that aligned with her values.

“My brother decided to come to Virginia Tech, so we were both in forestry at the same time,” Webster said. “We still wanted to stay in agriculture, but our family farm wasn't going to be a business for us to take over. That’s kind of why we transitioned to forestry, which is just long-term farming. That's all it is. So we took our knowledge of the woods and put it to use.”

Today, Webster ’06, M.F. ’08 regularly endures trial by fire, serving as the wildland fire program manager for the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point near New Bern, North Carolina. She is one of several Virginia Tech alumni with degrees from the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment dedicated to limiting and managing the often harmful effects of wildfires.

Their knowledge and skills are critical toward tackling a hot topic in the U.S. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, wildfires burned almost 6.9 million acres in the lower 48 states in 2021 — an 8 percent increase in the yearly average from the previous decade. In California alone, more than 3,600 structures were damaged or destroyed. Insured losses from wildland fires throughout the U.S. ran in the billions.

Virginia Tech alumni are at the crux of efforts to take on the challenges of wildfires, both in terms of eliminating risk and putting out blazes. Interestingly, they’re attacking these problems in different ways.

Jennifer McKee, Laura Webster, and Heather Tuck
Hokie alumnae (from left) Jennifer McKee, Laura Webster, and Heather Tuck take a break while participating in the WTREX training program. Photo courtesy of Kelly Martin.

Tech alumnae take advantage of WTREX

When most people think of fighting wildfires, they think of a firefighter wearing heavy clothing, big boots, and a helmet and carrying a 40-pound pack of equipment.

But Jennifer McKee ’04, M.F. ’07 wants to fight fire much differently. She wants to attack it with technology.

McKee, who holds a bachelor's degree in natural resources recreation and a master’s degree in forestry, works as a GIS team lead within the planning division of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) in Richmond. GIS stands for geographic information system, a system that creates, manages, analyzes, and maps all types of data.

VDEM partners with various state and local agencies to assist with managing large events or incidents – everything from gubernatorial inaugurations to COVID-19 to hurricanes and snowstorms. McKee’s office looks at things such as current and historical patterns for crowds, traffic patterns, rain amounts, snowfall amounts, winds, and more to formulate strategies for response efforts.

But she really wants to collect data and use it to help fight wildfires. With GIS, firefighters can analyze physical features through geographic layers that can be weighed, examined individually or collectively, and modeled to understand potential wildfire threats and treatments to reduce impacts.

In recent years, Virginia has not been affected by many wildfires. In 2021, wildfires in the commonwealth burned fewer than 7,000 acres. But continued training offers McKee an opportunity to be more effective in her current role while creating opportunities for being deployed to incidents outside of Virginia.

“That is something I’m trying to get my foot in the door to do,” McKee admitted.

To enhance those efforts, McKee attended a Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), a 12-day training program held in late March and early April in Wakefield, Virginia. The event is geared toward the ever-growing role of women in fire management and combines fire training with indoor learning.

McKee, who is sponsored as a casual hire by the U.S. Forest Service and available for deployment throughout the U.S., found herself in unfamiliar roles while at WTREX. For example, she participated in a prescribed burn while there, which gave her important insight concerning what wildland firefighters may face and how she can put her GIS skills to use in better ways to help them.

“I was in fire gear, which I never expected, and got to use a drip torch and be a part of the team and be on watch and do different duties that an actual Type 1 or 2 wildland firefighter would do, which helps me make sure that I develop appropriate materials or applications,” she said. “If you know how it's used in the field, it makes it much easier. If you're not developing something that's easily used by field personnel, it's not going to be used; therefore, you've wasted your time.”

In addition, McKee got to network with men and women from four countries and 14 states at WTREX, hearing different viewpoints and learning from the experiences other shared.

“It was a fun and new challenge, but it also promoted learning and growth,” McKee said. “It helped me learn new techniques that I can transition to my day job, which is good. … Learning new things is always fun. It expands your knowledge and makes you stretch.”

Webster also attended the WTREX event, even though she already has considerable experience with wildfire prevention and suppression. As a wildland fire program manager for Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, she is responsible for wildfire prevention efforts and responses on approximately 28,000 acres of forest and grassland and 12,000 acres of marshland.

Her role calls for her to organize prescribed burns, both on the air station and with state and federal partners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service) whose land sits adjacent to the air station and its outlying airfields. Prescribed burning involves igniting a planned fire to meet land management objectives, such as creating diverse habitats for plants and animals, helping an endangered species recover, or, perhaps most importantly, reducing fuels to prevent a hazardous wildfire.

In addition, Webster, who earned a master’s degree in forestry in 2008, often gets called to fight wildfires in places such as Utah, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Washington, Colorado, and Wyoming, where she has fought wildfires in various capacities. She attended WTREX for additional training and to serve as a role model for women seeking work in this field.

Webster called the event “the best money I ever spent in terms of training.”

“Having left this amazing training, I have a bigger network,” she said. “I have people I can bounce ideas off of that I feel comfortable calling up: 'Hey, there's a complex burn that I want to do with some tricky wildland urban interface. What do you think?' It's nice to have that network.”

McKee and Webster are minorities within their field. According to the National Association of State Foresters, fewer than 20 percent of foresters are women.

But an event like WTREX helps promote diversity, along with the efforts of researchers and teachers like Adam Coates, assistant professor of wildland fire ecology and management at Virginia Tech. Coates often pairs female graduate students at Virginia Tech with female mentors in the field and connects female graduate and undergraduate students.

“People have differing opinions about wildland fires, but in this field, there is a recognition of, ‘We don't need less people at the table. We need more,’” Coates said. “We need every viewpoint and perspective represented and accounted for, because we benefit from having more people … and the perspectives, vision, and leadership skills they possess. Women have historically been underrepresented in wildland fire management, and I believe we are making strides to address that issue at Virginia Tech.”

Preparing students for futures in firefighting

Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment also is playing a role in helping to address issues related to wildland fires by offering a new minor: wildland fire ecology.

Virginia Tech is not the only college offering instruction in fire ecology. Florida, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona State, and the University of Arizona all feature fire ecologists, who do research and serve as course instructors. But Virginia Tech is the first to offer wildland fire ecology as a minor.

This minor exposes students to the role of wildland fire in ecosystem development, fire management, and the use of prescribed fire. Through different courses, students get hands-on research experience and receive the opportunity to become Type 2 wildland firefighters. Students in advanced coursework may become certified prescribed burn managers in Virginia. 

“Virginia is a cool state because we respond to wildfires, but then there's a lot of stuff going on throughout the state, with state partners and with federal partners where they're using prescribed fire,” Coates said. “So there's interest from the employers to get students to have that experience.”

Webster agreed.

“That’s [fire ecology] something that a lot of landowners are interested in,” she said. “And it'll put you ahead on some of your job hunts and make you shine a little bit brighter than maybe some other applicants.”

Johnathan Vest ’15, a native of nearby Pulaski County, serves as a natural resource specialist for the Virginia Department of Forestry in charge of Montgomery and Giles counties, and his experience and expertise is greatly benefitting Virginia Tech students. 

A man stands in a field off dried vegetation holding a cylindrical container with an attached appendage emitting a small flame at its end.
Alumnus Johnathan Vest prepares to ignite a fire for a proscribed burn with a drip torch as part of his work with the Virginia Department of Forestry. Photo courtesy of Adam Coates.

Vest, who has a bachelor's degree in natural resources conservation, tag teams with Coates to provide hands-on wildland fire experiences for Virginia Tech students. Coates teaches the formal coursework in lecture and lab, while Vest conducts field day training and fitness certifications for students interested in obtaining a Type 2 Wildland Firefighter Certification with the Virginia Department of Forestry. This training provides students opportunities to assist the Virginia Department of Forestry with fire management near the Blacksburg campus.

“It’s kind of a win-win,” Vest said. “It gives students the options to get multiple things out of one program. … But I think that it’s one of those things that benefits not just the university, but also benefits the Department of Forestry in that we get firefighters that we can use here locally, and in essence, that benefits local fire suppression efforts.”

These sorts of recruitment efforts represent one of the many responsibilities for which Virginia Tech prepared Vest. His position also involves helping private landowners steward their lands, managing state lands in the two counties, serving as a commissioned forest warden for the Virginia Department of Forestry, and working with town officials in Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Radford to manage “urban forests” – forests within town or city limits that include parks, street trees, greenways, and more.

Vest has also put in his time serving on wildland firefighting crews. As a Virginia Tech student, he joined the New River Valley Fire Crew and spent parts of his summers fighting wildfires in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Texas, and other states.

“It’s always an adventure, and you get to stay and build crew camaraderie, where you're living with the same guys and women for anywhere from 14 to 20 days at a time,” Vest said of his experiences. “And it's a very fun experience for folks that are open to just kind of going with it, and you're open to hard work. That's the tough part.”

Future job market bright

In early April, 15 large fires burned in eight states across the U.S., with only eight of those contained. Between January and April, wildland fires burned nearly 800,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

That number is double the amount of acreage burned at this point last year. The potential for more acreage being burned and the destruction of more structures looms large with the hot summer months approaching.

“There's so much more work that needs to be done; agencies — state and federal — we can't do it all,” Webster said.

The federal government recognizes the issues. In late January, President Biden’s administration announced a $50 billion plan to expand efforts to stave off wildfire ignitions and their detrimental impacts. It calls for the use of more prescribed burning, more thinning of dying trees and vegetation to reduce forest fuels, better management near at-risk cities and towns, and converting 1,000 part-time firefighter positions to full-time jobs. 

This plan alone will not resolve every problem. Solutions take collaboration, and the problems associated with wildfire management create opportunities, especially for students and alumni like these Hokies who embrace challenges. The university’s research muscle could be the key to tackling wildland fire obstacles.

“The research part of it to me is wide open,” Coates agreed. “There’s so much going on now with technology from drones to computer modeling to involving physicists and engineers in building better forecasting tools for both wildfires and prescribed fires. The opportunities really are limitless.”

Therein lies one of the many appeals to Virginia Tech alumni who graduate with a degree in forestry. Whether managing the natural resources on the thousands of acres of a military base like Webster, or helping private landowners, counties, and community leaders manage their land like Vest, or aspiring to use data and technology to support firefighters responding to fires like McKee, the possibilities of a thriving career in forestry are truly endless.

“I think it's a really rewarding career,” Vest said. “If anybody's interested in it, you should certainly give it a shot. Give it a try and see if it's something you might like or love. And in terms of a need, I don't want to just put a broad brush over it, like there’s always a need. It seems like there's never enough, and for various reasons that are out there, there's constantly a draw for folks that are invested in and want to do it, that want to be a part of it.”

Maybe more importantly, each of these three love what they do because they love helping others, both in their own communities and across the country. They understand that fighting wildfires is not easy work, whether physically on the front lines or mentally in an incident command unit supporting those who are making life-altering decisions.

Such comes with the territory, though. After all, careers in this field often require one to take the heat – literally and figuratively. But the rewards are worth it.

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