The story - behind the story - behind the science
For the past 7 ½ years, my title has been Public Information Coordinator for the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers & Scientists. It always felt like way too many words, especially considering how much time I spent compressing detailed management plans or years of fire science into blurbs and tweets. I’ve recently accepted a new opportunity with the National Forests in North Carolina, so today is my last day in a role that I’ve been honored to serve in, despite its cumbersome title.
Working for a connector organization like CAFMS, your day-to-day work can be hard to describe. I can’t count the number of times when someone I’ve worked with for years finally screwed up the courage to ask, Wait, who do you work for? What do you do again? or What exactly is a consortium? *see footnotes for answers
I was given a mission to “stay flexible and meet the needs in the region”. I’ve felt privileged to serve that mission because it gave me a lot of room to stretch myself and experiment with projects and ideas. For the most part, I focused on really understanding the story of fire in the Appalachians. The history of it. The research we have and the research we need. Knowing who will do backcountry burning and who is working to make communities Firewise. It seemed like if I followed the story, built trust with the storytellers, and listened to the details, I could identify and meet needs. In fact, I built this blog to “tell the story behind the science”. So now it seems only fitting that I take this opportunity to tell the story – behind the story – behind the science. Ever committed to structured storytelling, I’ll start at the beginning:
On my first day, Helen Mohr (Director of CAFMS) gave me the only direct order she has ever given me in the entire time I’ve worked for her. She said, “don’t ever take time away from your family or your life for this job.” I was shocked and assumed she wasn’t serious. Until that point working in conservation and natural resources seemed inseparable from being taken for granted or working for free so that I could “prove myself” and “gain experience”.
But Helen and our Principal Investigator, Todd Hutchinson, consistently backed up that directive. When my husband was given an international assignment, they supported me working remotely from Shanghai. Any time my kids or my family needed me, I was able to be there without feeling torn. Before I agreed to take a new job, I painstakingly weighed having Helen and Todd in my corner against quantifiable benefits. Through all the years, through a pandemic, and even while living on the other side of the world, I always felt supported and appreciated and I am so grateful to have had that since day one.
As I settled into working for CAFMS, I got to know our cast of characters in the fire world - and I mean characters. Seriously, these personality types could fill epic novels (or at least a few reality shows). On every single field tour, I’ve watched as people break away from presentations to whittle, forage, poke around in the plants, catch critters, and be present in a way that is atypical for grown professionals. It always made me feel like I was at home with my kind of people.
What is it about fire folk? Through various jobs and earning my degrees, I have never met a group of people so brilliant and wildly dedicated. Fire attracts people who want to think deeply about a problem and work with others to solve it. It takes an adventurous spirit, a particular type of humility, and sits at this nexus of science and art and philosophy. I don’t know who started calling this professional network “the fire family”, but it rang true the first time I heard it. When I think about Helen’s words on my first day, I laugh a little because this job came with a family of its own.
And I know that family is one of those words that carries all kinds of weight. Like any family we have our tensions and disagreements, but we usually find a way through them. To me, the fire family speaks to relationships that have been intentionally nurtured to build a foundation for successful projects. That foundation makes it possible to share our struggles and celebrate our wins. It makes it easier to respond to crises. The fire family means meetings are fun and we’re all more effective as individuals, groups, and agencies.
I still wonder how I lucked into a professional group where I saw faces of pure joy when I had to bring my infant to work. When I had to leave for a week on short-notice to handle a family emergency I didn’t return to an inbox full of frustration. Instead, I received a small flood of messages expressing love and support. It's hard to capture what working in that kind of environment means. I know it has changed me, personally and professionally, by changing my expectations. I’m more fully integrated as a person because I haven’t been forced to hide any need or concern. I’m a better teammate because I’ve been encouraged to speak up without fearing conflict. It’s allowed me to be more resilient and pay it forward to build a more supportive foundation for others.
The Next Chapter
When I first took this position, I thought it would be a 2-3 year stint before I moved on to some “real science” job. Looking back, I don’t even know what that means, but I’ll blame it on the influence of being fresh out of grad school. I knew I liked fire and talking to people about science and seeing science used on the ground. I had been frustrated by academic approaches that hemmed and hawed and theorized when we had real problems to solve on the land. I found exactly what I was looking for in CAFMS; a chance to connect and learn and make an impact.
This job helped me realize that I’m naturally kind of a collector of people’s stories. I swear I can physically feel it when someone tells me a good one. It sits somewhere in my viscera and the stories cozy up like little knick-knacks in a shadow box. And I’ve been good at telling other people’s stories because I treasure them. They make me stronger and allow me to connect more easily with others. I hate to summarize it all like some annual report, but the stories make it possible to be more effective at building networks and more prepared to solve problems. If you curate them just right, the stories become an almost measurable resource, a perfect composite of pure love and useful data.
The only potential downside of carrying others’ stories is that it can be hard to separate from them and tell my own. A few years ago, I designed a media training for the Southern Blue Ridge TREX (happening again this fall, APPLY BY JULY 17). I challenged our participants to tell their “TREX story” on camera. At some point, one of them gave me a taste of my own medicine and asked “well, Jen, what about you?” I told them that observing and sharing their stories was a satisfying journey in itself and that’s true about my entire time with CAFMS.
So, to every researcher, ranger, student, collaborator, landowner, land manager, -ologist, passerby, and friend that has been part of my fire family, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I am so honored to have been trusted with your stories. I will continue to carry them with me as part of my own.
All of that said, there will be a job opening soon. It has a clunky title and I don’t know if the benefits or duties will change. I can tell you it comes with endless support and an incredible supervisor and PI. They’re the kind of people you want to be when you grow up. It’s the kind of gig where you can really get things done, build a family, and become a better version of yourself. It’s the reason why my first question for my new supervisor was "can I still do fire things?” The good news is that I can. Fire family forever - I can’t wait to catch up after I make this transition and hear all your stories.
Wait, who do you work for?
Please see our “About Us” page for details on the Joint Fire Science Program and the Fire Science Exchange Network. I was a Clemson employee hired through an agreement with JFSP to work for CAFMS.
What do you do again?
All sorts of things. I managed social media accounts, did graphic design, hosted a podcast, built websites, led communications teams, and occasionally I got to go outside and set things on fire.
What is a consortium?
In my first year with CAFMS, I complained about the word "consortium" because I felt like no one knew what it meant. It’s kind of like a guild or a community of practice, except instead of being pollinators or blacksmiths, we do fire stuff. I eventually came around on the term, but calling this group of people a consortium is definitely underselling it.