It never fails. Every year we read or watch the news about forest fires – usually around this time of year when the weather is hot and our landscapes are dry. Forest fires are indeed destructive and potentially deadly, but they are also a natural phenomenon. And those who help us understand wildfires – how, when, and why they happen and what to do in their wake – play a significant role in combatting, managing, and educating about their outcomes.
One such “fire worker” is Susie Kocher. As an extension forester for the University of California Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra Region, Susie has been on the frontlines of numerous forest fires, studying their aftermath and educating those who live in wildfire prone areas. Here is my conversation with Susie as she discusses her work on this hot topic.
Tell us about your background – where did you grow up, where did you go to college, what did you study and why?
I have actually had a very circuitous background. I am originally from Iowa, but I spent my first seven years in France with my American parents who were working there. I went to the University of Iowa as an undergrad and I ended up with an anthropology degree after many other choices. In anthropology is where I found my people – those who were interested in culture as I was. But I was also a physics and astronomy major at one point. I always had a hard time choosing between social sciences and the hard sciences. I find that now I have a career that connects both and that’s very exciting to me because I have always been pulled in both directions.
I moved to Washington, DC after graduation and worked in international education and development. I enjoyed that, but I felt like I had to dress up for people to know and respect me, and I was kind of a paper pusher. So I decided I really wanted a technical skill. I had been thinking about a couple of different degrees, and I hadn’t really thought of forestry, but when I was working in international education I had helped a number of forestry students come to the United States, and I thought the subject sounded really interesting. I had thought about law school as well, but what really helped me decide on forestry as a field is that I didn’t want to work indoors all the time. I had been a girl scout growing up and spent a lot of time hiking and camping. And to be honest, I decided I never wanted to wear panty hose ever again – and I haven’t had to wear them since 1982.
So I traveled for a while after working in DC for two years, then I went to graduate school at the University of Washington to study forestry. I specifically studied forest resources management with a concentration in social science (sociology). I was pretty torn by academia. I liked it, but it seemed so competitive and difficult and weird and petty. I enjoyed talking to people out in the real world, so I stopped after earning my masters degree and then I started working with cooperative extension.
With extension I am not at the university. I work with the university and I do research and publish papers and engage in education, but it is very focused and applied and that works great for me. I have a social science background, which few foresters do. Forest management is about ecological science, which I love studying and knowing about, but it is also a social process – how we think about the forest and what our forestry goals are. I have no problem understanding that we shape our vegetation and that we should shape it as we want. So the field fits me well because hard scientists don’t necessarily think we should shape our environment, but I think we should because we always have, throughout human history. The idea that there is a pristine landscape outside of us, independent of humans, is an American idea. It’s a construct. But basically our landscapes have always been managed by people.
What else inspired you to study forestry?
At the University of Iowa I had taken classes in the anthropology of agriculture, and I was from Iowa so agriculture was fascinating to me. I had been thinking about studying agriculture further, but my Girl Scout leader that had been a mentor to me had a PhD in plant pathology. She was a forester and she was one of the first female supervisors of a national forest. I asked her whether I should study agriculture or forestry and she said forestry because the people are more fun. And that’s true. Forestry people are more outdoorsy, they are more active, and more fun. I get to spend more time and live outdoors. I loved Iowa, but you can’t beat the mountains and the forest. Forests are just more fun!
Tell us about your research and teaching activities, and the work you do with the University of California.
Although I did study more sociology in my forestry program, I took extra time doing my masters degree because I wanted to study the science of trees. I took the 7-hour test to qualify for a license to practice as a registered forester. So over the years I have developed my knowledge of forestry as a natural science as well. But in my position as a county agent I cover four areas of the Sierra Nevada; four counties on the western slope – basically the areas between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. The big issues are wildfire. We had the Rim Fire in 2013 that burned 250,000 acres. We had the King Fire in 2014 and the Butte Fire in 2015. So huge numbers of people in my area were affected.
We began to focus on how forests recover from wildfire. I have been monitoring the Angora Fire, which was affected my town and burned 3,100 acres and 250 houses about half a mile from my house in 2007. I have looked at how forests redevelop over time and the practicalities of replanting and how to engage in salvage mulching as a way to recover. I have just submitted my paper after 10 years of monitoring the aftermath of the Angora Fire.
I have hosted post-fire workshops in all these areas affected. The last one I did had over 200 people show up, 100 of which had had their houses burn down. The workshop helps them understand how the forest redevelops over time and gives them the most recent science on what the most needed post-fire restoration activities are, such as replanting and salvage harvesting. Basically the purpose is to provide the most recent research for people so they feel like they can move forward with post-fire treatments for their landscape.
What is post-fire salvage harvesting?
Salvage harvesting or hazard tree removal is taking down damaged and dead trees, removing brush and working to replant. You take these dead or damaged trees out of the woods and use the funds to support restoration. Over time, researchers have been looking at the difference between areas where trees have been and not been harvested after fires, and the areas that are not harvested really accumulate fuel for the next fire. A lack of salvaging can also be a hazard for recreational areas and living spaces where trees can fall on people or on homes. This increases hazards for people that live nearby.
There are natural fires that happen because of lightening strikes or other natural causes, but over time we have been putting out more and more fires – for about 100 years – so fire suppression and the damaged and dead trees being left behind leave hazards for future fires, which isn’t always the best thing. Now we have a better idea of how to use fire more effectively, and not immediately suppress ever fire. But there is a lot that still needs to be done in the policy arena regarding how to treat fires.
What are some of the relevant policy issues regarding forest fire?
The National Park Service, which is part of the US Department of the Interior, has done a pretty good job of determining which fires are best to fight and which aren’t. But there is a cultural difference on this issue between the National Park Service and the Forest Service, which is a part of the US Department of Agriculture. The National Park Service has wildfire plans in place regarding which fires should be treated and how, whereas the Forest Service has had a “we must suppress everything” attitude for 100 years.
The National Park Service has actively been using wildland fire for ecological purposes for at least 20-30 years. The Forest Service has been resistant to change, but they are slowly coming around. They have different training and philosophies. If we burned more trees, we might have healthier forests because they would be thinner. Natives knew this 10,000 years ago. It has taken us a long time to figure this out.
What have been the highlights of your career?
It’s great to be in a place where you feel like you have the training and support to really help people. In extension, we judge people on research, but also on outreach and education. They regularly hold workshops and programs that really provide adult education. In my position, when there is a fire I can hit the ground running and bring science to local people – and that’s really great. I love that. Otherwise people are vulnerable to others with an agenda – different environmental groups or those that work in the industry. People come to extension because they are trusted – they are not pushing an agenda, but are sharing research and can respond to local crises. We work as honest brokers and a neutral source of information. It’s great to be working in a place where you feel you are using all your skills and helping people.
What have your experiences been as a woman in this field? Is professional forestry a field in which you find many women?
There is definitely a regional difference. The southern and central part of the country have fewer women in the field, but on the west coast it’s about half and half – at least for the women graduating now. In my age group, women in the field were about one in four. Right now the University of California at Berkeley graduates more female foresters than male, which is amazing. But still when you go to your average timber company around here it’s a bunch of “ball caps” for sure.
Actually, in the 1960s they didn’t allow women to be forestry majors. When I went to school at the University of Washington there was an old poster that said, “We want you to be a forester!” And then underneath it said, “Sorry ladies, you can’t apply, but if you are lucky you can marry a forester!” In fact, I went to grad school with the first woman who graduated with her undergraduate degree in forestry at Brown University. So it hasn’t been that long since women started entering the field. It is an agricultural oriented field, so people think of it as a male task. The south is really heavily male dominated. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because of mentors, or the lack of mentors. I can’t really explain it.
How do you feel about mentoring? You mentioned how your Girl Scout leaders were your mentors. Have you been a mentor during your career?
Absolutely there is a need for mentoring in the field. And yes I try to do that, particularly with graduate students. I am starting a project this summer, a social science project, and we have a student that will work on interviewing people that have had their property burn to see what they think about reforestation – to learn more about what they understand and why they would participate in forestry programs or not.
Ultimately, the main goal of a forestry program is producing timber. But social science skills and soft skills are needed in the industry. Those skills aren’t natural to many. And a lot of people in forestry aren’t really “people people.” But when they are working in the real world, they have to be able to work with people. The trees are the easy part. More women in the field might help with these kinds of skills.
What advice would you give to young women who may be thinking of studying forestry?
I suggest the Girls Scouts. I also work to reach under-represented minorities, particularly working with Hispanics. There are some amazing programs for women specifically working on fire training programs. My colleague does this and has created a group called “women-in-fire” training program. There have been a number of stories about sexual harassment in the Park Service, so there is now an all female fire training program. There are also specific programs for women landowners through the Women Owning Woodlands network.
But extension programs actually do a great job of hiring women and do appreciate soft skills. People skills stand out when working in extension because they can hold a conversation and can talk to people. Forestry is a great field for that and is a great career for women.
So if you are thinking of studying forestry, go for it! It’s a great degree. It can be a building block for other degrees as well. It is a broad area and will never harm you even if you focus on something else later. It’s a lot of fun, and there are no pantyhose!
What do you do for fun - to get away from work and gain "balance" in life?
Hiking! It’s a vocation and a pastime. I married a guy from the forest service and our kids get tired of us talking about trees. We have taken great vacations and have travelled to visit trees. We have gone to see redwoods, and we have visited some of the oldest trees in the world. Last year I was on sabbatical and went to study trees in the south of France. I have also visited Mexico to study trees. There is no shortage of really cool trees to go visit!
*You can follow Susie and her fascinating work on Twitter @UCsierraforest.