Brian Stocks, Wildfire Science Specialist, B.J. Stocks Wildfire Investigations Ltd., Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.
Wildfire was able to speak with Brian Stocks during the last week of October and during the IAWF Awards Presentation Ceremony in Boise, ID. Brian graciously consented to allow us to present our interview with him in Wildfire.
Wildfire: Brian, congratulations on being named the 2017 IAWF Ember Award recipient. Our Association is extremely pleased to give this award to someone with your esteemed accomplishment record and who commands such high regard by the global wildland fire management community.
Brian: Thank you very much, I am very honored and humbled to receive this award.
Wildfire: Can you tell us about your career, what attracted you to it, and did you have a favorite position?
Brian: Well, I retired from a government position after 35 years and now still work part-time supporting programs as needed. I felt extremely lucky to get to work in one location during my career and as a result, did not have to move my family around for different positions. During this time, I worked in the same lab, and just saw my job grow from regional to national to finally an international perspective.
I was always interested in going into Forestry, even as a young man. The Canadian Forestry Service offered some scientist positions just as I was graduating, and offered to fund post-graduate studies for those selected. I had no real plan to go into fire management or fire research but this opportunity was very appealing and I accepted. I was sent to the University of California at Berkeley and was able to study under and with some very bright and progressive fire management minds at that time. I considered myself extremely fortunate, and this good fortune continued throughout my career. Pure serendipity, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Wildfire: Do you have an accomplishment(s) that you are most proud of or your most rewarding accomplishment?
Brian: I think this is probably working on the development of the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System and conducting experimental burning programs to develop a fire behavior prediction capability in major fuel types. There was a need to burn under a broad range of conditions and we were able to get support to do this and continued it for 20 years. We conducted many experimental crown fires and certainly learned that some were more difficult to control than others – had a few go over the hill. We built good relations on the ground, kept those going, and strengthened interdisciplinary work to get the burns done. This experience was very valuable as fire became a part of larger global issues (climate change, atmospheric chemistry, carbon) and we became more involved internationally and across disciplines.
Wildfire: How do you feel in general about the wildland fire management program today? What do think are some major issues facing us and what challenges must be dealt with?
Brian: I think the wildland fire management program has progressed dramatically from its beginnings but it has also progressed into an environment that it has not been in before. The 2017 British Columbia wildfires, the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, and the western USA wildfire seasons are good examples of how things are changing. When I started out, we dealt with fires that occurred in unpopulated areas and we needed to get better at predicting spread rates, crowning potential, and fire danger. Early hot topics included fire behavior and fire ecology. Today, we are able to predict fire behavior at the 90% level. With the changing fire environment, wildland-urban interface, and frequent impacts to population areas and infrastructure, we need to ask if we need to do better at predicting fire behavior or if our problem is more about trying to adapt to fire? Has the problem gotten ahead of us? From a research standpoint, do we need better fire behavior or better management of the risk problem and landscape level changes?
Wildfire: What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced during your career?
Brian: The biggest issues were associated with government perception and trying to convince the public of what was needed. To learn what was needed, we were required to burn under conditions that the public could not burn under and we had to explain this. Also, sometimes we worked on international and interdisciplinary fire issues that did not seem directly related to local and regional issues in Canada, and this took some considerable explaining to point out the relationship and applicability of international issues to local levels.
Generally, we had no major setbacks although some fires had issues. In the mid-1980s, we had inquiries about expanding our collaborative international work to extrapolate to a ‘nuclear winter” scenario; this is described in Edward Struzik’s Book, Firestorm. This took some explaining to clarify with politicians.
Wildfire: What skill or knowledge sets would you like to see added to the profession to help make it easier to do the job?
Brian: I believe continued basic research on wildland fire science is crucial, but we also need to envision and be prepared for emerging issues. Addressing these problems will require adaptation in addition to basic fire and social science research. We cannot completely control the problems of today and tomorrow but need to adapt to them. By doing this, we can mitigate or attempt to contain future fire damage.
We seem to have some reticence to “grabbing the bull by the horns”, which includes raising public and political awareness that the future does not look good. We have conducted decades of meaningful fire research, but despite this progress, we still have a growing problem and this problem is getting ahead of us.
Wildfire: Who has been your greatest inspiration to help get you where you are in your career?
Brian: When I first started, I certainly looked up to Canadian fire researchers, particularly Charlie Van Wagner and John Muraro. These fellows, and many others in Canada and the United States were a generation ahead of me and doing fascinating work. They were wonderful and giving mentors. There were also many operational fire management folks in Ontario and across Canada, that I looked up to.
Throughout my entire career, I was fortunate to meet many people nationally and internationally who became great colleagues and friends. The CFS fire science group and our team at the Great Lakes Forestry Centre in Sault Ste. Marie became like family as the years passed. Getting to know everyone as both people and colleagues has been special.
I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have Lynda, my wife of 50 years, and our three children who have sacrificed a lot but been strongly supportive throughout my career.
Wildfire: Do you have advice to offer to someone aspiring to be successful in the field of wildland fire management?
Brian: Yes, first, there are a lot of unknowns in career trajectories. In addition to science and academic skills, it is advisable for everyone to go out and work on research projects to learn about them and participate in that aspect of the work. Some researchers are less able to relate to anyone in the field and think that if they understand the science, they do not have to build relationships. Really, everyone need to listen as much as they talk!
Always remember that you are there to learn. Never stop learning. Field people can teach researchers a lot and researchers can teach field people a lot.
But my best advice is that at the end of the day when you retire, it is not awards or publications but people you have met, friends you have made, and working relationships you have formed that have lasting meaning. Investments in these relationships have impacts and benefits that are more meaningful as time passes.