- Undergrad Program
- Grad Program
- About Us
“We need to understand how our changing climate will affect future fire regimes”
During the spring, Devin Yeatman (B.S. ’07) works for The Nature Conservancy as a burn crew supervisor in South Carolina. During the summer, he works for the Department of Interior on the Chena interagency hotshot crew in Alaska.
Devin Yeatman takes a short break after a burnout operation during the September 2012 Mustang Complex, a fire in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border. Photo by Josh Tereszkiewicz.
In South Carolina, Yeatman explains, they typically conduct 20 to 30 controlled burns every spring (January to April), primarily to encourage the propagation of longleaf pine, a fire-dependent species. “The job is pretty dynamic, which I really like. We have work sites all over the state so we stay busy scouting out units, prepping control lines, and burning the properties. I have a few hours of paperwork to do every couple weeks but other than that, I’m able to work outside almost exclusively.”
In contrast, his summer (May to October) gig “focuses exclusively on wildfire suppression. We work in steep, mountainous terrain putting firelines through a variety of fuel types. It is an extremely arduous job where you work 16 hours a day for two weeks at a time before getting any days off, Yeatman explains, “But the travel, camaraderie, and adventure are unparalleled.”
Yeatman recalls what led to his interest in geography and eventually, firefighting. “I was always sucked into my Rand McNally kids road atlas, even when not on family trips. I was able to use my imagination and vicariously live through the maps, picturing what the places were like. As a high schooler, while pondering what I should study in college, I figured ‘hey, I like maps and I like working outside, so why not geography?’ After visiting Penn State, it was a done deal. Penn State had the best program in the country, along with the environment that we all know and love.” Yeatman credits Alan Taylor with first exposing him to the world of wildfire and spurring his interest in that field. “Between the summer dendrochronology internship he runs every year and his two courses in biogeography and forest geography, I was sufficiently motivated and interested in the subject matter to pursue it after graduation.” During a post-graduation summer internship doing forestry work in central Oregon, Yeatman experienced wildfires that “blew me away,” he says. “Growing up as an East Coaster, I had almost no exposure to wildland fire. It was something completely foreign to me, so cool and new.”
Now both preventing and suppressing wildland fire is his career.
Both kinds of work present different challenges, in addition to the physical demands. “While working for The Nature Conservancy, the biggest challenge stems from the fact that there’s a lot of responsibility inherent in putting fire on the ground. We need relatively specific windows (humidity, winds, etc.) to burn the various properties and have to constantly adjust to the changes in a dynamic environment. The initial plan is seldom what ends up being used by the end of the day. On the hotshot crew, along with being away from loved ones all summer, probably the biggest challenge is maintaining mental focus and resilience for the long haul (the six-month fire season). When you’re working so hard all the time and beating yourself up, it can be easy to ‘check out’ and stop caring. But you’re part of a team and need to maintain a positive attitude at all times.”
What would make his job easier? Yeatman would like to see researchers working more closely with land managers at all levels of government and in the private arena to develop “stronger, scientifically defensible justifications that increase the proactive management of forests and fuels with prescribed fire and fire surrogates,” he says, adding, “We need increased dendrochronology studies in more varied habitats and geographies so that we can reflect on past interactions of climate and fire. We need to understand how our changing climate will affect future fire regimes.”
If any students out there have any interest in wildland fire, please don't hesitate to contact me. I know how daunting it can be to navigate all the information out there, particularly within the federal system. I have helped others in the past and would love to assist Penn Staters, especially geographers. Contact Devin Yeatman at: email@example.com