By Jimmy Robertson
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.
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’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.
McKee, who is sponsored as a casual hire by the U.S. Forest Service and is available for deployment throughout the U.S., found herself in unfamiliar roles while at the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (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.”