From Firefighting to Forestry

Debrah Zemanak examining a sample in forest

After graduating from high school, Debrah Zemanek (MSFM’19) started working as a firefighter in her hometown of 100 Mile House and then Lillooet, BC. She was driving to Pemberton while off duty one weekend when she passed a forester’s truck on the side of the road.

“I thought ‘Oh man, that seems like the coolest job. It’s like firefighting but may be more long-term and sustainable for me’,” Debrah recalls. “I love being in the forest, but also the idea of having a natural science-based career; I would love to be a forester!”

Debrah was doing an undergraduate degree in environmental science at Queen’s University at the time and thought she would have to do another four-year undergraduate degree to go into forestry. After completing her undergrad and pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering, she heard about UBC’s Master of Sustainable Forest Management from a family friend. It was time to follow her dream.

Now, Debrah works at B.A Blackwell & Associates where she helps lead their fuels management group. Her team focuses on creating community wildfire resiliency plans, developing coal fuel management prescriptions and supervising the implementation of those prescriptions.

“When I started, I thought it was pretty straightforward; but, honestly it’s not,” admits Debrah. “It seems that in every project I work on, some complication arises that I’ve never seen before, which also keeps my work interesting and fun.”

Likewise, Debrah loves that she can learn about forests and their particularities in her work. 

“You can learn to read a forest, much like you can read a book. It sounds cliché, but there’s so much going on in a forest that you don’t think about until you learn about it,” she says.

How ecology, fires and service history, such as past logging, impact trees are of keen interest to Debrah. “‘What story does the forest tell?’ That’s probably the most interesting thing to think about,” she remarks.

At the same time, Debrah’s field is going through a transition period to respond to the impacts of climate change. More and more professionals are looking to maximize forest resources by, for example, processing second-growth forests instead of old growth or using more wood and burning less slash.

“A lot of barriers are starting to be removed,” says Debrah. “We’re now dealing with the legacy of what we did in the last 100 years. We’ve got a big mess to clean up, but we’re getting there.”

Raising awareness about Fire Smart BC is also very important to Debrah, as she wants to see ongoing efforts to protect infrastructure from wildfire. An organization that promotes wildfire preparedness on private lands, Fire Smart also supports communities by providing assessments and information on factors that spread wildfires, such as fire-safe landscaping. “I enjoy my work in fuels management because it’s all about human values in relation to our forest – forests that have been altered by humans for centuries,” says Debrah. “Public safety, fibre utilization, recreation and wildlife are all intrinsic to fuels and wildfire management.”

About the Author

Elif Kayali is an international student from Turkey who is double majoring in economics and political science. Elif is currently working for UBC Forestry’s Development and Alumni Engagement team as a Work Learn student where she gets to use her passion for journalism and writing to meet and write about the wonderful members of the forestry profession. In her free time, Elif loves to write for UBC’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey.

Posted in: , , , ,

Related Articles