The International Association of Wildland Fire is proud to represent the field of wildland fire management and have such an outstanding membership made up of passionate, committed, progressive, and enthusiastic individuals. We are always seeking to recognize members and individuals making a difference with significant contributions in today’s environment and for the future in the field of wildland fire management.
We feel very fortunate in this month’s Wildfire issue to be able to provide dual recognition to an individual as an IAWF award recipient and a Fired Up honoree. Dr. Sara Brown is our 2017 recipient of the IAWF Early Career Award in Fire Operations and also our Fired Up Honoree for January, 2019.
Sara is the Acting Director for the US Forest Service’s Human Performance and Innovation Organizational Learning Research, Development and Application (RD&A) Program of the Rocky Mountain Research Station. She is stationed in Bend, Oregon USA.
Wildfire Magazine was able to speak with Sara following the 2017 IAWF Awards Presentation Ceremony in Boise, ID. She has graciously consented to allow us to combine that interview and the Fired Up writeup into a single article to share with all IAWF members in Wildfire.
Wildfire: Sara thank you for granting us this time to talk with you. What we want to accomplish is to provide an interview with you as an IAWF award recipient as well as present IAWF members a synopsis of where your career has taken you and contributions you have made and are making to advancing wildfire activities in all areas.
Wildfire: So, with that, let’s discuss what you been doing, what organization you are a part of, and maybe a little bit about your biography.
Sara: Sure, that sounds great!
Wildfire: Okay, well let’s go ahead. Why don’t you tell us your title, and your home location and your position and your organization you work for?
Sara: All right. Well my title just switched. I previously, when I got the award, I was Deputy director of two research development application units in the Rocky Mountain Research Stations of the Forest Service and I have just been, what you consider it to be upgraded to acting director. Replacing my former supervisor, who is retired. So, I guess as of today, I am the Acting Director of the two Research, Development & Application (RD&A) Human Performance and Innovation organizational learning program units for the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Wildfire: Well congratulations on that, that’s good! Your career to date has exposed you to pretty much all aspects of fire management. Can you tell us about your career and what attracted you to get into this field.
Sara: Yeah that’s a good question. I started out as a high-school student on a youth Conservation Corps in Oregon where I had the opportunity for a three-month summer period to be on a trail crew. I found that I really loved the outdoor aspect and I loved the crew aspect of being with good people. So, the following summer I applied for a job with a local fire crew, thinking that would be an enjoyable way for me to spend the summer but also would allow me to pay for college expenses. I started with a Type 2 crew on the Willamette National Forest and worked for four seasons on my way up to being a squad boss. During that time, I graduated from college, received a Bachelor of Science and environmental science degree. I decided that I was having just too much fun with fire to quit, so I took a job with the Zion Helitack Crew based out of Zion National Park. There I met two smokejumpers who I really connected well with and they convinced me that I should try out to be a smokejumper. So, the following year I applied and was accepted at the Boise smokejumper base. I attempted rookie training but I failed, washing out my first year. Instead, I spent that season on a Hotshot crew, which was a disappointing turn of events at the beginning of the season, but I realized I needed another season of fire before trying rookie training again, which I did the following year. I was able to complete my training at the Redmond Smokejumper base in Oregon where I spent one season.
After a long, fun season I got an offer to transfer up to West Yellowstone, where I continued smoke jumping for the next four seasons. During that time, I realized that I really wanted to continue along the educational path that I started, so I pursued a Master of Science Degree focused on fire ecology at Washington State University during 2005 and 2006. I sort of stalled out on my thesis and was getting frustrated with some issues that had been going on, so I decided to apply for a PhD that would allow me to finish my Master’s Degree and then continue working toward a doctorate. I applied for a program in ecology through Colorado State and found a wonderful advisor, who was willing to take me on right before the start of the 2007 fire season. I went back to smoke jump at West Yellowstone thinking that would be one of my last seasons for a while because I would commit to doing research in the summer.
Unfortunately, in 2007 I had a fairly serious, mid-air-collision parachute accident that was an operational career-ender for me. I broke both of my legs and my right wrist. After many surgeries, I ended up with an amputated right leg below the knee. I am now thankful for making the decision to amputate, because it has allowed me to again run and hike and bike and do many of the things that that I’ve always loved to. I remember calling my advisor from the hospital to explain that I would probably not be able to start my PhD with her in the fall, that I had been in a terrible accident. She convinced me otherwise. She said, “nope, unfortunately you’ve committed your time to being my teaching assistant and you are going to do that. I will do whatever it takes to get you to where you need to go.” I said, “I don’t think you understand, I’m in a wheelchair with two broken legs that have to be elevated and I’m right-handed and I broke my right wrist.” “Well,” she said, “we’ll figure it out,” and she came to my house and we figured out how to wheel me around in a wheelchair and get me around from class to class.
Her name was, Indy Burke, she was a fantastic advisor throughout my PhD program. She ended up taking a job at the University of Wyoming my second year. I followed her to Laramie, Wyoming where I graduated with my PhD in ecology with a specialty in pyroecology in 2011. As many PhD students are convinced to do, I took the traditional academic route and applied for two things at once. As I was graduating, Indy suggested that I start applying to academic jobs to get experience applying because it’s a really competitive field, and at the same time, I applied for a postdoc position at Michigan State University. It was focused on how to teach science and would allow me to learn how to teach. I was offered a job at New Mexico Highlands University, teaching in their newly-created fire science program. I had also been accepted into the post doc position, so I had a tough decision to make: did I want to give up my postdoc and just teach? Did I want to give up my teaching to do the postdoc? I talked with both groups and decided to take on both at the same time because it was a good pairing.
While I was teaching at the University, I could use the skills I would gain at my postdoc. I wore two hats for a couple of years, which allowed me to learn a lot about teaching in an actual teaching environment, which was a pretty amazing. I spent 4 years at Highlands, working and teaching in the fire science program. I had both undergraduate and graduate students that I conducted research with. I took one of my students to present at a conference in Boise and I ran into some old firefighting colleagues who I really connected with. One of them, Matt Carroll, said that I really had to talk to his supervisor, that he was starting up a new, interesting group. I figured I had better talk with this guy. Thinking at the very least, maybe we could collaborate through my teaching job. Ivan Pupulidy and I had a great lunch together, and pretty soon I was thinking less about staying at Highlands, and more about joining Ivan’s group in the Forest Service, because it had aligned almost all my previous experiences, and all the things I really cared about. Ivan was starting a research, development and application unit that was focused on applying research to understanding and preventing accidents in the Forest Service. Since I had experience with a serious accident, I started thinking about how that affected me personally, and how it affected the program at large. I thought what a cool way to apply research, which I have been doing for the past eight years. I did a lot of thinking about fire ecology and how we could potentially protect and improve the safety of firefighters. It just felt like the right thing to do to switch from teaching at Highlands, to coming back to the Forest Service to work in a group that was thinking about research in this way. I joined Ivan’s group in August of 2015 and I have been there ever since. Ivan and I sort of co-led/ co-managed two groups for the past year-and-a-half or so before he retired. Our group has been doing a whole bunch of cool, theoretically innovative work for the Forest Service.
Wildfire: What a great, great story. Thanks for sharing that.
Wildfire: So now you’ve been operationally on the ground. You’ve been in research and academia. And now you’re in research development and application and have a direct impact on operations. Is there one position that you have enjoyed the most; I don’t want to pin you down about your favorite position, because maybe every position just gets better than the last.
Sara: That’s an interesting question that’s hard to answer. I’d think I would say all my positions have been great and enjoyable. Each of them at the time may have been my favorite position for one reason or another. I really loved fighting fire at the operational level. It is physically challenging, it is mentally challenging, it is filled with lots of good people. You get to see lots of beautiful and remote places. I really loved that part of almost all my operational fire career. On the academic side, the teaching at Highlands – the students were amazing. I really miss teaching students who are excited about new concepts and ideas. The job I have now, offers the opportunity to make big change in the Forest Service. Or at least we have led ourselves to believe that we have the ability to effect change in the Forest Service – to help the agency and employees shift toward a safer direction and do that in a really thoughtful, purposeful way.
Wildfire: Great, great! You are definitely in the right field at the right time. You’ve been in the field long enough to see issues develop and come and go and more. You have faced challenges. Professionally what do you think are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
Sara: I think there has been one primary challenge and I really see it clearly now. That is the relationship that we have as humans in the United States with fire. Throughout my operational career, I never felt good about the fact that we were tasked with putting out every fire. There was an underlying discomfort even though I did the job and I followed through with what my mission was, which was to suppress fires. There were so many opportunities I can think back on during my operational days where I wish I had been in a position to say, “No I think we should just let this one burn.” I think we would have seen great ecological benefits. This has carried over in my academic world both in school, learning about fire ecology and teaching fire ecology, and in fire management. Thinking about our relationship with fire and the fears that lots of people have around fire and the desire to control what I believe…what I understand is an uncontrollable natural force, but it is necessary for life and diversity is quite a conundrum. So throughout my school and my academic career that challenge was what I thought about almost daily as I went about teaching courses to students who would probably become managers of landscape that are adapted to fire. Now in my current job, I see many accidents that we would all like to prevent in the future. And almost always, when I look deep in my heart, I know that the accident ultimately could have been prevented had we had had a different relationship with fire. If only we could start managing fire differently. I think throughout my entire career that has been the central theme, the central challenge.
Wildfire: Thank you for that compelling response. Do you have any particular accomplishment that you feel has been your most rewarding one or one that you are most proud of?
Sara: Boy I don’t really know? It was a big accomplishment for me to pass rookie training and become a smoke jumper. Although it is a bit bittersweet given my accident in that field, I think I am in a place now that I can look back and say that was an accomplishment that I worked really hard physically and mentally to be able to make it through and join that group of people. I would actually say that is my biggest accomplishment.
Wildfire: Your nominations for the early career award said that you received the national smoke jumper courage award. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Sara: Yes, that was actually a big surprise to me. It was really neat because it was presented to me by a local smoke jumper that I didn’t even know that lived in Laramie. It’s sort of funny, everywhere I go, there seems to be a smoke jumper that has been a part of the community over the years. To be presented this award by a local smoke jumper and get to know him and talk about what smoke jumping was like for him in front of everybody was pretty cool. But as I understand it, I was selected for the award because I had been smoke jumping for five seasons and then had the accident.
I had some challenges, obviously, associated with that, but was able to sort of make lemonade out of lemons, I guess, which is sort of the smoke jumper way. (e.g. given an active fire assignment, the way to get through it is to put on a happy face, look for the positive, put your head down and get the job done). This motto is sort of what I applied to my life and my accident. You make the best of what you have. I think the group, for whatever reason, decided to recognize that, which is kind of appropriate since I got a lot of that determination from being a smokejumper. So, it was pretty cool, a pretty cool acknowledgment.
Wildfire: What year did you get the award?
Sara: I believe 2009. Something about the nine.
Wildfire: Congratulations on that! And of course, congratulations on the early career award in fire operations. We are so pleased to accept and select you for that award. Your work that you are doing is changing the face of wildland management and trying to prevent accidents. Trying to learn from that, promoting innovation and advancing learning are all wonderful things that are very important to the operational part of management.
Wildfire: Do you think with the challenges facing wildland fire today and, in the future, that there are additional skills and knowledge that would make the discipline better for everyone. Are there any specific skills or knowledge that can help you do your job better? That is kind of an all-encompassing question. Maybe it’s better to just say as we’re moving with fire management now and into the future, are there additional skills and knowledge that our people better need to be prepared for success?
Sara: Yes, our group has talked about this a lot. This is one of our major, major tasks to think about. There are no easy or simple answers. But where our group has landed is that there’s a lot to be learned in the social science arena. Understanding people, understanding the complexity around people, understanding the qualitative world. This is not what my classical ecology background trained me in, but what I have come to realize is sort of that intersection between understanding things like climate change, ecology, and some of the hard sciences, coupled with that human side.
So really, it’s the human dimension of fire. I don’t think we have fully explored as an agency, or as a country, or as a fire community, all of the benefits that exist around the social aspect a fire. The connection and networking between people. The interaction between us and the environment. And as an example, I think we’re really good as a fire fighting organization, we can train firefighters and apply the same old tactics. We know what used to work under certain conditions. And we’re really good at applying those tactics. But what we haven’t really been very good at is changing along with the environmental changes and the social changes. We need to figure out a way to combine social sciences and an understanding of complexity with the understanding of the environment, the entire social and physical and political environment and keep our tactics and our strategy in that dynamic mode. I think there are gains to be made there.
Wildfire: Very good. Do you have any quotes or sayings that you think about or rely on your daily duties? And if you don’t we don’t have to worry about it.
Sara: I guess I don’t really have any quotes or sayings. One that we have been joking a little bit about, but also kind of not joking about it, is the definition of insanity — [that] doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results is the definition of insanity. I think we’ve done a lot of that and with good intentions. But it’s time that we do something different, with a different, better result.
Wildfire: Okay. Do you have anyone you would view as a great inspiration to help you get to where you are today?
Sara: Oh man. I have tons and tons of those people. I can’t think of just one In every single position that I have had, which has been a lot positions. it seems like I have had sort of one or two mentors, a combination of both men and women. One that stands out that has affected me across my academic and social professional life has been my graduate advisor Indy Burke. But, it seems in every position I have had someone to mentor me. Like recently, Ivan Pupulidy, my supervisor. He is a mentor that I am sad to see retire. But I am also happy that he is retired – for his sake. He will be doing great things in the next chapter of his life So, every position I seem to find that person. I am very fortunate.
Wildfire: Very good. Do you have any advice to offer to anyone aspiring to move into the wildland management field and any advice to help them be successful?
Sara: Boy. I’m not sure I have advice. I think to be in this field, you really have to have a passion for the field. I think that passion can develop once you’re in the field. I know people who go into fire and find that they really love the job and love the people. I love the diversity of types of jobs one can have in the field. I would say that sticking with the topic of fire has been really good for me to be able to have one theme that sort of runs through my career. I’ve taken very different approaches to that one theme throughout my career which has kept it interesting and I feel like I’ve always been growing. Continuously challenging yourself, might be the best advice that I can give. If you find that you have a passion for fire, find ways to continuously grow within that field. I think if you are growing yourself, you can’t help but be providing the field where it kind of fits along with your personal growth. Sort of a selfish, yet hopefully also non-selfish way to give advice there.
Wildfire: Okay, very good. Sorry to hit you cold with some of these tough questions, but you are giving great answers with a lot of meaning to our readers. So back to the Fired-Up initiative have you seen that at all in our Wildfire Magazine?
Sara: Yes, I think I have. I get the general gist.
Wildfire: What we do with the Fired Up section is to recognize individuals or groups for the contributions they are making. You have already provided us with highlights of your career, but we would like to hear more about you and your unit are doing. Can you tell us a little more about what the RD&A does? What is your mission is how and many people work there? What your impact is on fire reviews and learning center, training courses and things like that.
Sara: Yes. You caught us at an interesting time period during the transition from Ivan retiring to whatever the future holds. We have come up with a new structure, a proposed new structure for our RD&A’s. We think it’s going to be successful, but with that being said it hasn’t gone through all the hoops to get 100% signed off yet. So, I hesitate to put it out there but, I think I’ll be bold and go ahead and share it and hope it will be reality. We used to have two RD&As’ in this area. They were separately funded, but had overlapping missions or goals.
One is called Innovation and Organizational learning, IOL is the acronym. That group has been tasked with managing the Forest Services’ coordinated response protocol and learning review, which is a long- winded name for what we would think of as traditional accident investigation. So, if there is a fatal or serious accident, our group helps put a team together and we will go and conduct a Coordinated Response Protocol. The overall idea is to coordinate so that the folks that have gone through a traumatic experience are only interviewed as few times as possible. We try to coordinate with law enforcement. We try to coordinate with the peer support system and we try to coordinate with the learning review team that is tasked with interviewing folks to understand and learn from what happened. One of the powerful pieces of the learning review is that the employees that just went through the traumatic, negative outcome will not be punished in any way by sharing what happened. You have to a punishment-free environment for people to want to tell you the real story. And for the agency to be able to learn from mishaps and accidents even when terrible, terrible outcomes have happened. This side of our group puts on an annual, wek-long training to train individuals who are interested in participating on the team.
On the other side of the house is the Human Performance group. This group specializes in wellness, wholeness of employees, work-life balance. They manage programs that help teach employees how to be resilient. Our Human Performance Group trains champions in this wellness program so they can bring the message back to their local units. This group is also involved with new employee orientation and exploring all kinds of ways to create resilience in our workforce. We have learned over the past two and a half years that it has been really hard to do the third task. We have been tasked with shifting the culture of the Forest service toward a more learning-oriented agency. To create a learning organization out of the Forest Service—which is a challenging task. It is a big agency, and it is spread across a continent. This goal requires that we are doing big, long-term sorts of projects. So, what we proposed to do is to set up a third unit, a third group of people within our unit, that looks at that learning organization level work. This third group had been working on what we are calling call the meta-review, where we have looked over the last 10 years in terms of accidents and incidents that happen in fire and we are looking for similarities and differences.
We are now trying to understand the conditions in which these accidents occur in the hope of learning, at a big agency-wide level, ways that we can approve and review the likelihood of future accidents and incidents. So, the third group will be focused on the long-term big learning project like the meta-review. As far as people go, we are a fairly small group right now. We have big plans to hopefully grow in the future. Right now the Coordinated Response Protocol and learning review part of the house has two dedicated folks. The human performance side of the house, right now is two folks, maybe I should retract that, and we’ll say four folks with the hopes of growing. We are hoping that the new group, the long-term learning organization group will have three or four folks that will be working on this program of work. So that’s our proposed structure and how we hope to work moving forward. We meet regularly, we are talking about how each other’s work impacts the various groups and how we can interact and network and work together, because we’re all very much linked.
Wildfire: Sara, thank you very much, and we look forward to hearing of your continued success and contributions.