Tech Graduates Benefit from 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 gear bag.
But Jennifer McKee ’04, MF ’07 wants to fight fire a lot differently. She wants to attack him with technology.
McKee, who holds a bachelor’s degree in natural resource recreation and a master’s degree in forestry, works as a GIS team leader with 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 in the management of significant events or incidents – ranging from inaugurations of governors to COVID-19 to hurricanes and snowstorms. McKee’s office looks at things like current and historical crowd patterns, traffic patterns, rain amounts, snow amounts, winds, etc., to formulate response strategies.
But she really wants to collect data and use it to fight forest fires. With GIS, firefighters can analyze physical features across 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 less than 7,000 acres. But the continued training offers McKee the opportunity to be more effective in her current role while creating opportunities to be deployed to incidents outside of Virginia.
“It’s something I’m trying to get my foot in the door,” McKee admitted.
To bolster these efforts, McKee participated in 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 focuses on the ever-increasing role of women in fire management and combines fire training with classroom learning.
McKee, who is sponsored as a casual employee by the US Forest Service and available for deployment across the United States, found herself in unfamiliar roles at WTREX. For example, she participated in a prescribed burn while there, which gave her important insight into what wildland firefighters may face and how she can use her GIS skills to help them.
“I was in firefighter gear, which I didn’t expect, and I was able to use a drip torch and be part of the team and be on call and do different tasks than a real firefighter Type 1 or 2 forester would do, which helps me make sure I’m developing appropriate materials or applications,” she said. “If you know how it’s used on the pitch, it’s a lot easier. If you don’t develop something that is easily usable by field staff, it won’t be used; therefore, you have wasted your time.
Additionally, McKee was able to network with men and women from four countries and 14 states at WTREX, hearing different perspectives and learning from experiences shared by others.
“It was a fun new challenge, but it also fostered learning and growth,” McKee said. “It’s helped me learn new techniques that I can incorporate into my daily work, which is good. … Learning new things is always fun. It expands your knowledge and makes you stretch.
Webster also attended the WTREX event, although she already has considerable experience in wildfire prevention and suppression. As the Wildfire 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.
His role calls for him to organize prescribed burns, both on the air station and with state and federal partners (US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Forest Service) whose lands are adjacent to the air station and its outlying airfields. . Prescribed burning involves setting a planned fire to achieve land management goals, such as creating diverse habitats for plants and animals, helping an endangered species recover or, perhaps most importantly, reducing combustibles to prevent a dangerous forest fire.
Additionally, Webster, who earned a master’s degree in forestry in 2008, is often called upon to fight wildfires in places such as Utah, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Washington, Colorado and Wyoming, where she 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 training money I’ve ever spent.”
“After leaving this amazing training, I have a bigger network,” she said. “I have people I can bounce ideas off of that I feel comfortable calling, ‘Hey, there’s a complex burn I want to do with a complex urban interface in the wilderness. What do you think?’ It’s good to have this network.
McKee and Webster are minorities in their field. According to the National Association of State Foresters, less than 20 percent of foresters are women.
But an event like WTREX helps promote diversity, as well as the efforts of researchers and teachers like Adam Coates, an assistant professor of wildfire ecology and management at Virginia Tech. Coates often matches female Virginia Tech graduate students with female mentors in the field and connects female graduate and undergraduate students.
“People have differing opinions about wildfires, but in this area there’s a recognition of, ‘We don’t need fewer people around the table. We need more,” Coates said. “We need every point of view and perspective to be represented and considered, because we benefit from having more people…and the perspectives, vision and leadership skills they possess. Women have historically been underrepresented in wildfire management, and I think we are making progress in addressing this issue at Virginia Tech.
Preparing students for the future in firefighting
Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment is also playing a role in solving wildfire issues by offering a new minor: wildfire ecology.
Virginia Tech isn’t the only college to offer fire ecology training. Florida, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona State and the University of Arizona all have fire ecologists, who do research and serve as course instructors. But Virginia Tech is the first to offer wildfire ecology as a minor.
This minor exposes students to the role of wildfire in ecosystem development, fire management, and the use of prescribed burning. Through various courses, students gain hands-on research experience and have the opportunity to become Type 2 wildland firefighters. Students in advanced courses can become Certified Prescribed Burn Managers in Virginia.
“Virginia is a cool state because we respond to wildfires, but there’s a lot going on across the state, with state partners and with federal partners where they’re using prescribed fires,” said Coates said. “So employers want students to have that experience.
“It is [fire ecology] something that a lot of landowners are interested in,” she said. “And it will give you a head start on some of your job searches and make you shine a little brighter than maybe other candidates.”
Johnathan Vest ’15, a native of neighboring Pulaski County, is a natural resources specialist for the Virginia Department of Forestry covering Montgomery and Giles counties, and his experience and expertise greatly benefit Virginia Tech students.