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Profiles of Geographers

Learn more about geography as a field of study and about geography careers from profiles of geographers working in education, business, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. Read about why they chose to pursue geography and how a career can be exciting, meaningful, and successful!

 

May 2021


Johanna Ostling, Forestry Technician (Fire Lookout), U.S. Forest Service

Education: Ph.D. in Environmental Geography (Texas State University - San Marcos), M.A. in Applied Geography (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), B.A. in Geography and Environmental Studies (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs)

 

 Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible? My job is to scan the landscape visible from my tower for smoke from new starts and report them. Finding evidence of new fires and quickly and accurately reporting the location are the most important parts of my job. Our seen areas (the ground we can see from the towers) can cover hundreds of square miles in mountainous, hilly, or flat terrains, depending on where we are in the country. The ability to identify where a fire is in relation to the tower and provide a geographic descriptor of the location is key to dispatching resources to the correct place.

In addition to identifying new fires, lookouts also track weather conditions and update people in lower elevations and inside buildings on changes. In lightning events, lookouts verify when thunderstorms are active, including lightning, thunder, rain vs virga, hail, and wind speeds. I find lightning simultaneously the most awe-inspiring and terrifying part of being in a small tower on an exposed mountain ridge. I put my trust in the grounding wires of the tower and a wooden stool with glass-insulators on the feet.

As high points, lookouts also act as human repeaters for radio traffic as needed. When ground resources are moving around, they sometimes end up in places where they are unable to reach the forest repeaters for the radio network. They can communicate directly with the lookout, who then relays the information to the appropriate party on the broader network. In areas with no cell service, this function becomes an important way to relay information around the forest’s valleys and peaks.

What attracted you to this career path? Weather and natural hazards have fascinated me for the majority of my life. Living in the Bay Area during the Loma Prieta Earthquake (1989) and the Oakland Hills fires (1991) shaped my interest and gave me core experiences with hazards. Over my career, I’ve found the most satisfaction working in positions where I assist others through education, information, and preparedness. Being a fire lookout combines my personal and professional interests. I am able to help others by locating fires quickly and when they are small, allowing first responders to respond. The lore of fire lookouts also appealed to me; I enjoy being part of a 115-year-old tradition in the United States of being eyes on the forest.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? The majority of lookout life is spent observing, learning, and noting changes in the landscape, which is an ideal fit for a physical geographer. My knowledge of environmental conditions, such as evapotranspiration and thunderstorm development, helps me distinguish between clouds of water and smoke. In a landscape where I’m looking from under my nose to over 30 mountainous miles away, it’s important to know when a group of clouds has the potential to build into a cumulonimbus or will likely dissipate.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often? Knowing the names of different landscape features helps me provide identifying information for the resources responding to a new fire. Being able to read a map correctly and identify the township and range location of the smoke I’m seeing is a key skill in communicating the location of a fire. As a monitor of the weather, I record weather conditions at least three times per day, noting cloud cover, temperature, relative humidity, wind direction and speed, precipitation, and any other relevant conditions.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them? I started as a volunteer fire lookout with Marin County Fire Department and received training through their program. Each lookout receives a binder with straightforward information on using the radio for communication, recording weather conditions, what smoke looks like when different materials are burning, and general information about the area. We had an in-person training with the new lookouts and returning volunteers. We practiced using the radios, saw pictures from the fireline of columns of smoke and practiced describing them as we would in a dispatch report. I appreciated the opportunity to hear stories from and ask questions of the experienced lookouts.

When I transitioned to the U.S. Forest Service as a paid lookout, many of my skills were transferable. Of the four lookouts in my district, I was the new one to the area. The three returning lookouts oriented me to the landscape of my new home, ran through the local procedures, and gave me advice on living at the towers. We had a few days of in-person training before going to our towers. After that point, we communicated by phone and text message, cell service permitting, and listened for each other on the radio.

As a way to broaden my knowledge and participate in the larger fire community, I took online courses through FEMA in the Incident Command System while I was at the tower. This helped me understand the terminology, what information would be most useful and when to provide it. Following my first season, I took in-person classes for incident management and training for fire documentation management. As a lifetime-learner, I appreciate the opportunity to continue acquiring new knowledge and skills, giving me the ability to contribute to the fire community beyond my role in the lookout towers.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours? Try it, you might like it. For me, starting as a volunteer was a great introduction to the job. When I made the transition to being a paid lookout, I already knew I loved it. It requires the ability to keep oneself entertained while maintaining vigilance. The ability to be alone with your thoughts is important, too. Different agencies and locations have different work schedules; lookouts can be at their worksites for days to weeks at a time in varying levels of remoteness and inaccessibility.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? With the addition of fire cameras, some people do not see a continued need for staffed fire lookouts. I am obviously biased in my opinion that people are still needed in the towers. I think a combination of people and technology is the optimal long-term solution. My forest recently lost a lookout who had been in his role for over 25 years. Hearing him call a fire over the radio was a clinic for the other lookouts listening to him not only give the location of the fire but also direct the responders turn by turn. The people staffing the towers come from an assortment of backgrounds and represent a wide range of age groups. We share a love of the land, a respect for nature, and a responsibility to the people living in the areas we overlook.

Share Your Experience

The AAG is conducting a new series of interviews with professional geographers to highlight the important work geographers perform in their careers. Once completed, the interviews will be featured on the AAG's website as part of our monthly Profiles of Professional Geographers series. 

For the profiles we seek practicing geographers representing all sectors of the workforce, including those working in private business, government (state, regional, local and federal), nonprofit/NGOs, and education (K-12, community colleges, and higher ed) to showcase the broad range of career opportunities available to geographers.

If interested, please email Mark Revell at mrevell@aag.org or call 202-234-1450, ext. 165.

We hope you will consider participating!  

 

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