The amount of people that helped me along my journey is absolutely staggering. I am indebted to countless and I strive towards replicating their kindness through my actions with others. For this site, I have a few specific people I would like to recognize in the support of its creation, thank you to: Charles B. Hayes, Dean Ferreira, Alistair Burt, Mara Lorin, McKenna Schnack, Gregg Murray, Steve Havengaard, and any others whom helped me to put it together.
What is a Thomas J Watson Fellowship?
"The Watson Fellowship is a rare window after college and pre-career to engage your deepest interest on a global scale. Fellows conceive original projects, execute them outside of the United States for one year and embrace the ensuing journey. They decide where to go, who to meet and when to change course." (Watson Foundation).
Why this site exists
The Thomas J Watson Fellowship requires quarterly reports and a final thesis, however in the wake of COVID19, the finalization of the research is incomplete. A final thesis will be available at an undetermined time, in the mean while, this site serves as a summation of narratives, concepts, and findings from my nine months of international study. With luck, the research will be able to continue post 2020 fire season.
Thomas J Watson Application - For all prospective applicants
The first time I encountered a wildfire I remember the panic I felt as flames consumed the chaparral mountains surrounding my community. My mother frantically loaded the family’s cherished possessions in the car as I was mesmerized by the sublimity of such a phenomenon. I was frozen in place, uncertain of whether to feel terror or awe. I did not know it at the time, but those freshly charred hills would sprout new life the following spring. California Fescue grass and mustard seed would soon provide a fresh food supply for the California mule deer as well as optimal hunting grounds for red-tailed hawks. The dynamic process of destruction and rejuvenation captivated me --how could a force so terrifying create so much natural beauty? This question remained at the forefront in my mind for years until I was able to grasp the ecological significance of wildfire. Through inquisition, I began to see that fire does not naturally exist at the end of the candles my sister made, or contained in the campfire rings my father lit on our camping trips. In its natural state, fire roams freely and brings new life to areas that have grown decrepit. Fire’s ability to regenerate life began as a fascination, but the role of fire in ecosystems would become my passion.
My desire to understand the natural world has remained constant throughout my life. I have always been drawn to the complexity and importance of ecosystems dynamics, beginning with tidal pool walks with my marine science elementary school and progressing through to my decision to come to Colorado to study mountain ecosystems. I had little knowledge of the field of fire ecology until a high school environmental science teacher, Ms. Hunt, introduced me to the critical importance of wildfires. On the last day of high school, Ms. Hunt gifted a small book to me that would become the guidebook to a life path.
I have always been a serious reader. My mother forbade television from our home, so I used books as the vessel to fuel my imaginative exploration of world outside my home. I often had my head buried in books during elementary school. I suspected that I would find a life path through literature, but it was not until Ms. Hunt gave me that fire ecology book that I found glimpses into my future.
My sister gave me a second book that further revealed to me the significance of wildfires. She found the book at a garage sale and knew it was perfect for me. The book was about wildland firefighters, those who observe and fight fires in wild landscapes. It absolutely hooked me: a profession that combined understanding the complexities fire behavior with extreme physical challenges and teamwork; I knew I had to do it.
In college I was able to implement the lessons I learned from those two books by seeking to analyze wildfires through different lenses. Ms. Hunt’s gift laid the foundation for what became my academic focus; and my sister’s garage sale find motivated me to work as a wildland firefighter during my summers. While I learned a great deal about fire- its complex relationship with society- I learned more about myself. Late nights spent working the fireline or studying post-fire regeneration revealed my strong independent spirit and work ethic, and honed my ability to think critically or creatively. With every school year and fire season I enhanced these skills and applied them repeatedly.
Through education, I gained insight into the ecological importance of fire, indigenous relationships with fire, societal impacts from post-fire effects, and the challenges of maintaining a balance of fire between societies’ needs and ecological health. My view of wildfires is not limited to only the perspective of a firefighter. I have explored the ecological impacts of wildfire through my coursework as an Organismal Biology and Ecology major and an Environmental Issues minor. My coursework has allowed me to explore concepts such as post-fire invasion of weeds after severe burns, evaluations of biodiversity impacts from different fire management strategies, and hydrologic outcomes of fire in various Colorado watersheds. I was also fortunate to study ecology in Argentina to compare fire’s influence in Patagonian ecosystems with those in Colorado. Most importantly, I have learned that ecological and societal issues associated with high severity fires will only be exacerbated by climate change and continuing wildland-urban development in fire-prone areas.
The knowledge I gained in my classes became applicable when I began work as a wildland firefighter for the U.S Forest Service. Beginning as an unassuming college first-year, I spent three summers fostering an understanding for fire behavior and the logistical challenges of its management. I observed the influence of different fuel types, the impacts of beetle-kill, and the creation of an ecological mosaic. Even while performing extremely intensive physical labor with my 20-person handcrew in challenging terrain, I apply my background in fire ecology and discuss with my colleagues how the current fire behavior would influence lasting ecological processes. I gained an appreciation for the immensity of resources and organizational infrastructure needed to manage and suppress wildfires in the American West. I also questioned aspects of current fire management and its methods: is the cost of managing wildfire in the United States warranted? Clearly it's important to protect life and property, but when a fire presents no threat to these entities, why not let the fire proceed naturally? How can other communities that do not possess these resources or histories manage wildfires and protect values at risk? Is it possible to synthesize environmentally beneficial indigenous practices into modern fire management?
I’ve found myself challenged physically, mentally, and professionally in ways I never could have fathomed because of the world of fire. Typically, my deployments lasted between 14-21 days with 16 hours each day dedicated to suppressing, managing, or observing wildfire behavior. During these long days I dealt with constantly changing fire behavior and tactics. One moment I would be hiking 50-pounds of gear around a waterfall, and in the next I would be using a drip-torch to fight fire with fire, removing the ignitable material between my crew and the main fire front with low intensity flames. While this type of work is intense, I enjoy what I find within it — the discovery of who I am when everything goes wrong. It is hard to comprehend at first, but only after I had been leveled by hard work and hunger and complete exhaustion did I discover glimpses into my true self. Unpredicted adversity is the best avenue to self-discovery and my journey has only just started, and I believe that investigating societal and environmental conflicts with wildfires will provide challenges to further my understanding of myself.
My academic and professional experiences have generated a desire to comprehend and resolve cloudy relationships between wildfires, people, and ecosystems. Increasing wildfire trends are placing greater stresses on ecosystems and requiring more intense resource expenditures to fight them. I find myself returning to the same question: how can wildfires exist to maintain ecological integrity, but still be managed to protect life and property? As a student trained in fire ecology, I believe that fire must be restored to the landscape, but I can still remember the fear that filled me when flames surrounded my home. As a firefighter, I empathize with the desire to put fires out and reduce societal anxiety, but as an ecologist I know that extinguishing wildfires will only delay them. Additional experiences of fighting fire in wildland-urban interface communities similar to the one I grew up in have meant that I directly contributed to the prevailing paradigm that wildfires are a threat to society wherever they burn. This suppression management strategy ignores centuries of successful indigenous practices and largely fails to address long-term climate change implications for wildfires. It is my deep belief that progressive management strategies that incorporate historical indigenous practices may be utilized to better compliment shifting ecosystems, but the confirmation of this belief can only be explored through an intentional, international experience.
Progressive environmental management is not a novel concept, especially in regard to fire behavior. It began thousands of years ago through interactions between indigenous groups and their environments, where fire was utilized to benefit both. My experiences with fire management in the United States has proved to me that while our nation is proficient at fighting nature, we fail to address and treat the underlying causes of extreme wildfires. Throughout the world, several nations recognize the environmental and societal benefits from holistic management styles that restore natural, low-severity wildfires. I desire to know the societal variables that allow for these environmentally beneficial management methods and how ecosystems respond to them. For me to better understand these progressive models, it is necessary that I engage with land managers, vulnerable communities, firefighting professionals, and ecologists that emphasize these methods.
The global increase in wildfire severity and frequency represents one of nature’s unpredictable reactions to anthropogenic conquest. As the only natural disaster that humanity actively attempts to battle, intense wildfires carry an extremely high social and environmental cost. The natural process of fire is out of balance with civilization due to human development into wildland areas, a hot and dry climate, ecosystem mismanagement, and a nature versus humanity dichotomy. Our relationship with wildfire is further complicated because a sustainable solution cannot be found through greater human interference - as the United States has painfully learned, a fire put out is a fire put off.
The human approach to living with wildfires represents an issue of balance- how can wildfires exist to serve their ecological purpose, without extensive loss to life and property? I ask myself this question everyday, and like all complicated questions, it has only lead me to more questions. How will increasing wildfires alter the world’s ecosystems? How can a country with little wildfire experience and resources protect itself, but also promote natural fire processes? Are there differences in wildfire intensities among nations that implement indigenous styles of management versus those that do not? Are there possibilities for knowledge and resources to be shared across the world? These questions will lead to even more questions, and I believe the Watson will offer me context to try and answer them.
My journey will take me to Canada, Greece, South Africa, Australia, and Chile. Countries all over the world experience wildfires, but I have selected these nations as they have fire-adapted ecology, some indigenous fire history, and varying fire management methods. These nations represent areas that experience extreme fire behavior, and have taken strides to manage their landscape’s relationship with fire. Overall, these nations constitute a gradient of proactive and reactionary responses to wildfires. During my travels I will meet with land conservation organizations, indigenous groups, fire-impacted communities, fire ecologists, and government fire officials to get a full perspective on the logistical and ecological challenges that countries face with wildfires.
First, I will travel to British Columbia, Canada. British Columbia’s landscape dynamics closely resembles the fire relationship of the Western U.S, with the addition of extremely progressive fire ecology knowledge and a less significant wildland-urban interface. These exceptions allow for greater flexibility in fire management as there is not an obsessive mindset to protect housing communities and wildfires can be observed in a more natural environment. While in British Columbia, I will meet with fire ecologists from the University of British Columbia, officials within the Ministry of Forestry, and indigenous groups from First Nations. Progressive fire management and prevention have long been established in British Columbia, as indigenous tribes have used the power of fire regeneration for thousands of years. First Nation tribes still continue this practice and I hope to learn from them about their environmental views and practices. Canadian fire authorities synthesize aspects of this indigenous methods by restoring fire to the landscape in the form of controlled and prescribed burns. I intend to investigate the infrastructure and institutional mentalities that encourage this proactive form of land management. British Columbia will mark the first destination as it will equip with knowledge of progressive fire interactions that I will apply throughout my journey.
The knowledge I gain in Canada will be extremely applicable in the next country I visit, Greece. Greece represents one of the many countries that are being forced to confront an emerging wildfire epidemic without established knowledge and resources to manage them. Greece experienced its deadliest fire season in history in 2018, with 91 fatalities. This extreme fire behavior can be attributed to global culprits of an expanding wildland urban interface and warming climate, but more importantly due to years of forest/fire mismanagement. Greece’s financial troubles have decimated the nation’s ability to manage its forests and maintain fire resources. This has led to potentially explosive variables such as: forest fuel build-up, loss of fire prevention efforts, reduction in knowledgeable forest managers, limited availability of firefighting resources, and almost no post-fire rehabilitation projects. In addition to these factors, there are numerous geo-political variables that slow the country’s response to rising wildfire trends.
Greece is different from other countries I will visit because it represents one of the many countries that are not prepared for the increasing wildfire trend that climate change will exacerbate. I will shadow fire ecologists and anthropologists from the University of the Aegean to learn how ecosystems are shifting under increased wildfire regimes and the history of fire in the country. I have also made contact with members of Greece’s Urban Fire Service, the primary brush firefighting organization, to examine their prevention plans, available resources, and fire management strategies.
After Greece, I will seek to observe wildfire dynamics in South Africa. The Western Cape of South Africa constitutes one of Africa’s most fire prone regions. Fire management in South Africa is forward thinking as it acknowledges the ecological process of fire in mediterranean-like ecosystems, and attempts to co-manage for both ecological integrity and mitigation of fire-risk to human development. The Western Cape draws similarities to California in its chaparral ecology and dense human settlement, but due to reduced resources and infrastructure, experiences greater loss of life and property damage. The combination of minimal resources, unchecked urban sprawl, and a warming climate will exacerbate fire frequency and severity in South Africa. For this reason, I have fostered relationships within the fire ecology and fire management communities in the Western Cape. Through researchers at the University of Capetown and fire managers at NCC Environmental Services, I will be able to better comprehend how increased wildfire frequency and severity will impact ecosystem biodiversity and viability, as well as how managers work to prevent, manage, and actively suppress threatening fires. I have established a relationship with Dean Ferreria, the founder of NCC, as we share a common passion for improving fire management practices around the world. After a period of correspondence, Dean invited me to work alongside him in South Africa to witness how fire management and firefighting occurs in the Western Cape.
Following the chaparral ecosystems of South Africa, I will travel to the Eucalyptus forests of Australia. Australia has combined indigenous knowledge with modern fire suppression practices and the result is Australia possesses one of the most proactive fire management programs in the world. Local fire authorities, indigenous groups, conservation scientists, and NGOs collaborate to ensure that lands are managed correctly, and this includes the use of intentional prescribed fires. Fire management in Australia represents a pro-active approach, where the health of the landscape and ecology is a top priority, as opposed to other countries that rely on reactive approaches and value public opinion over ecological integrity. Bush Heritage is an NGO that collaborates with various government, scientific, and indigenous institutions to restore fire to the landscape to encourage environmental integrity. I will embed myself with Bush Heritage to analyze their inter-institutional relationships, the types of ecological research being conducted, and outlook of fire within wildland-urban interfaces.
After compiling an understanding for Australia’s progressive management practices, I will contrast these methods with those of Chile. Wildfire frequency and severity has drastically increased in Chile, and 2017 represented a record year for destruction. Increasing fire behavior can be attributed to a history of fire exclusion, an expanding urban interface, and importation of pine species for timber production. The result of these compounding variables is that Chilean ecosystems are becoming increasingly flammable, yet the nation does not posses the necessary resources to protect its vulnerable communities. Many researchers in Chile, such as Pablo Sarricolea and Miguel Castillo, believe that improved landscape management has the potential to simultaneously reduce fire threat and improve ecological integrity. I will converse and follow fire ecologists to gain insight into how increasing wildfire patterns are altering existing ecosystems and may transition to new equilibriums. Changing forest composition may result in increased fire risk to communities at the ever-expanding wildland-urban interface. I will interview community members surrounding Valaparíso to observe the preventive steps they take to protect themselves. In contrast, I will interact with other Valaparíso communities that have experienced destruction from fire to discern how they restore their environments and themselves.
As someone who has stood on both sides of the fireline, I am uniquely positioned to study how ecology applies to the management of wildfires around the globe. On one side I have experienced the fear of wildfires consuming my home and committed myself to stopping fires as a wildland firefighter. On the other side, I have stood within forests that are overgrown and deprived of the ability to restore themselves. I am committed to resolving the conflicts and perceptions that disrupt cohesion between people and the environment. My Watson intends to use wildfire ecological and societal dynamics as a lens to understand avenues for remediating socio-environmental relationships.