[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature on Sara Brown in the Summer 2016 Issue of Two More Chains. Today, Sara is the Program Manager for the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Fire, Fuels and Smoke Science Program.]
By Alex Viktora and Paul Keller
As a high school junior in a small town snuggled up in the west side of the central Oregon Cascades, Sara Brown got her first taste of wildland fire.
That summer she was working on a Youth Conservation Corps trail crew that ended up helping with fire suppression efforts. “So I got access to a bunch of firefighters,” Sara recalls. “I thought that would be a really cool job. I decided to see if I could compete for a job in fire.” Part of her rationale for pursuing wildland firefighting was that she knew this work would help provide money for her upcoming college career.
As you will see, formal schooling and wildland fire will become key pursuits for this woman as she treks down her life’s trail.
Next Stop: After that YCC season, Sara got a job on a local Type 2 Fire Crew. She would work on this crew for the next four seasons.
From Helitack to Hotshots to Jumping
“I really enjoyed it,” Sara says. “And that job was able to fund most of my undergraduate college years.” After graduating with her undergraduate degree, the call of fire beckoned to Sara yet again. She ended up on the Helitack Crew in Zion National Park. The next season, she joined the Snake River Interagency Hotshot Crew. The following year, 2003, Sara became a Redmond Smokejumper and transferred to be a West Yellowstone Smokejumper the next season.
Sara jumped for five years. On her last jump, in 2007, she was severely injured. Sara broke her right femur and shattered her right tibia and fibula. Her right talus (a bone that acts as a pivot in the ankle) was shattered, as well as her right wrist. It became a career-ending jump. After a year and a half and nearly 20 restorative surgeries, Sara elected to amputate her right leg below the knee. Not to worry. During the off-season during her jump years, Sara had pursued—and pulled down—a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Regional Planning. So, after her injury, she decided to set her sights on a PhD in Ecology, with a focus on Fire Ecology, which she received in 2011.
Her career path then led her to New Mexico Highlands University where she taught for four years in the school’s forestry program. She became the lead course developer for the school’s wildland fire science program.
Today, Sara is employed with the Rocky Mountain Research Station as a Human Dimensions Social Science Analyst. She works with 12 other folks on the “Human Performance and Innovation and Organizational Learning” team. “We focus on innovations and learning related to human performance,” Sara informs. “That includes all the things that we can bring either to the field or to our agency’s leadership.”
Considering where you’ve been and where you are now, what does “diversity” mean to you?
“Diversity” is one of those loaded terms which, in my opinion, really shouldn’t be loaded at all. Because diversity to me, if you dig down—and this might have sort of an academic flavor coming from the group I’ve been hanging out with recently—but diversity really has much less to do with race, color, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—or anything. It’s really all about the diversity of thought. From my perspective, I believe that diversity is just the simple differences between people taken from their life experience that lends a different lens to the way they look at the world.
To summarize, my definition of diversity would be: Different perspectives that come from different life experiences.
What about “ecological diversity”?
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear “ecological diversity” is that an ecosystem is most stable, or most resilient, when it has the highest diversity. Its resilience has to deal with its ability to remain functional to withstand some sort of disturbance. That means that if it’s perturbed in some way—be it fire, wind, water, drought, or increased carbon dioxide, or whatever—that increase in diversity allows it to better protect itself and remain functional in the face of one of those perturbations. That’s what I think of when I think of ecological diversity and the power of diversity.
How does this perspective apply to our social world?
It’s the same thing. I see our social world as really just one big ecosystem. And I think about diversity in terms of species diversity. The same applies to the social world. If you have a diversity of thoughts and perspectives that are able to provide their natural roles, then the social system will be more resilient. It will be more able to handle difficulties, challenges, or anything we would think of as a type of a disturbance. I therefore believe that it’s one and the same. The definition holds true for both our social world and ecological systems.
What are the biases that we deal with in the world of wildland fire?
That’s an interesting question. I think that biases are large and diverse. They are challenging to even identify, especially for people who have been inside the fire community. I think our initial bias as an organization is that we seem to unanimously always want to put the fire out. That is a bias that fire is bad. Now, I know that’s not 100 percent true because obviously there are fire use modules with their prescribed fire programs. But as a whole, I think one of our biases is: “Oh, my gosh, there is a fire in X, let’s send resources to it and put the fire out.”
Another bias is that we actually have the ability to control fire. I know that can be argued back and forth. I have good examples of times I think that I did control fire. But I probably have even more examples where I think we thought we were controlling fire but ultimately we didn’t. Things greater than a little fire crew controlled the fire, like weather and rain. So the control and this idea that fire is bad would be two biases.
A third bias would be the types of people who have the opportunity to participate in our current wildfire culture. I think we have created a situation where the people that we typically think of as fire managers or who are in the fire program are younger than older, stronger than weaker, typically male, and almost always white. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s a bias that I have.
From your experience, what biases exist around gender and equality in the world of wildland fire?
I would like my answer to be that we’ve made great strides since the 1960s. But I don’t know that we’ve set a target in front of us to even know if we’re successful or not.
What are your thoughts on the fact that we have a lack of women Division Supervisors or women Burn Bosses, etcetera?
For a woman, it’s a toss-up between having a family and operationally continuing your career in fire. Because it’s not a career that you can just take five years off and go and have a baby and come back, right? Your quals time out at three years, and then you are starting over from scratch. On top of that, you have to complete task books in relatively short periods of time. Sometimes you have assignments that are spread a season apart. There’s just no easy way to take maternity leave or take a year off to raise your family.
There are a lot of dual career folks in which both the male and the female partners are in fire together. That is another challenge. Who is more capable at going to work every day when somebody is pregnant or somebody has just given birth? The male, right? I don’t think it has anything to do with women being “capable” or women not necessarily feeling supported to continue operationally in fire. I think there are plenty of women who, had the system been built differently, would have successfully navigated their way up to the top of Type 1 and Type 2 ICs. I believe that it’s just the way the system works right now. It’s really challenging to have a happy, healthy relationship and/or family.
How do we strive to fix our current situation?
I think that the solution to this problem—as well as many other problems—needs to come in the form of the interagency fire community banding together and working our way out of the job, which would look very much like creating a fire-resilient ecosystem where fire is no longer the enemy.
Fire would become something that we embrace and use as a tool rather than fight it. If I were King—look there, isn’t that ironic that I didn’t say “Queen”? If I were Queen, I would start with the Wildland-Urban Interface. I would use all of my relationship building and collaborative tools as well as educational tools—which includes a lot of fire ecology principles that have been out there for decades—to try to get a hold in creating a fire-resilient Wildland-Urban Interface. So that firefighters don’t have to go in and protect structures.
Firefighters would actually increase the footprint of fire and include areas within and adjacent to the Wildland-Urban Interface, such that we might not need a giant fleet of firefighters. And the term “firefighter” would sort of fall away and become something more along the lines of “fire users”—somebody who understands that fire is a natural process and a tool and is utilizing those natural starts in a risk-managed way. I think we have to work toward that.
How do gender and equality tie together?
If you think about gender and equality as a diversity of perspective that can come from a variety of life experiences; if we’re able to truly diversify and actually seek diversity—which will probably bring conflict to our happy, little community—I think that we’ll start to have tough discussions about where we need to head.
And this vision will slowly become clearer and clearer because we will have a diversity of opinion, a diversity of thought, a diversity of ideas about how we can get to wherever this place is that we’re going in the future.
I personally hope it’s a fire-resilient ecosystem on a broad scale where fires are just part of our day-to-day season—whatever that season looks like, and that season is obviously changing.
But I believe it’s through a diversity of perspective that we’re going to arrive at a way to get to that place. And I think that a community of people have to mutually agree and respect each other’s differences and have that painful conflict that comes with diversity. I think we can do that respectfully. We’re going to have to accomplish this sooner than later because, for lots of reasons, we’re getting to a place where it’s not sustainable to continue doing things the way that we have been.
And so I think the role of, be it gender, if you want to think about gender, or diversity of perspective, is going to be one of the few ways that we have of getting there—to this desired future condition—the fastest.