Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Joey Chong

Office of Communication
May 24th, 2016 at 9:15AM

A photo of Joey Chong holding a boa constrictor
Travel is always on Joey Chong’s calendar. During a trip to the Philippines, a local let him hold his pet boa constrictor. (Personal photo courtesy of Joey Chong.)

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in computer science, Joey Chong started looking for jobs. The thought of being confined to a chemistry lab motivated him to pursue a Forest Service career after reading a job description which included outdoor work and travel. That job was for a physical science technician 15 years ago at the Riverside Fire Lab which is now the Pacific Southwest Research Station, Riverside. Since then, he’s honed his expertise in experimental fire science, discovered his love of the outdoors and his passion for travel.

What attracted you to working for the Forest Service?

When I was applying for jobs, many focused solely on work in a chemistry lab. Then I found one with the U.S. Forest Service and the description read ‘Must like the outdoors, must be willing to travel.’ That’s all I needed as that’s really who I am. The Pacific Southwest Research Station covers the western U.S. from California to Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. When our group deployed to Australia and New Zealand to help firefighters during their intense fires, the opportunity allowed me to see these countries as a visitor as well. I’m red –card certified because of the wildfire research I’m doing so it’s great to get out of the lab and add to my experience with wildland fires.

What is your job at Riverside?

Our research projects vary and can take a year to years to complete. I worked on a 30-year study for several years in Flagstaff, Arizona, to evaluate the effectiveness of thinning or burning or both on various research plots which rotate from one to 30 years. My job involves managing the equipment needed for our wind tunnel experiments: thermocouples to measure temperatures, load cells to measure the mass of fuels as they burn, and setting up the infrared imaging and videotaping of the experiments. We see how live plants burn differently based on their characteristics.

How does your work help mitigate the risk of wildfire?

We have several ways to study fire behavior. In one experiment, we burn fuels or plants in a wind tunnel throughout the year to determine how fire behavior changes throughout the seasons. We also go out to the field to study fires. Data collected from the lab and in the field is used to create fire models to help predict fire risk levels and fire behavior as the rate of spread, and flame length given current weather conditions.

In Hawaii, fires are actually frequent because of all the non-native grasses and drought in some areas. My boss tested models to predict fire danger levels across Hawaii’s islands. I helped collect fuel and weather data for model predictions. Some areas of Hawaii, like the leeward side of the Big Island near Kona, actually get less rain than Southern California.

A photo of Joey Chong standing next to a truck testing fire apparatus during a tilt test to simulate driving conditions
During a work detail to the Forest Service’s San Dimas Development Center, Chong works an engineering project to test fire apparatus during a tilt test to simulate driving conditions. The goal is to ensure the engine’s center of gravity is low enough to prevent roll-over incidents.
(Personal photo courtesy of Joey Chong.)

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I’m constantly inspired and motivated by the challenges presented by the variety of experiments and work we do. We do a lot of brainstorming to design experiments that have sometimes never been done before. We experience a lot of trial and error in setting up different prototypes until we find something that works. Because our equipment may be burned in some fire experiments, it’s not something we can buy off the shelf but have to custom build our equipment for the tests. We spend a lot of time on problem solving.

You have a number of other hobbies including travel and road rallies. Where have you traveled and what determines where you go?

In Australia, I went scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef and visited Ayers Rock, the famous big red rock in the middle of nowhere where hordes of flies attacked my back and shoulders. I’ve swum with whale sharks in the Philippines. During a trip to the Yucatan in Mexico, I went diving in the cenotes, sinkholes in limestone bedrock, which led to caverns underneath and wove in and out of the stalagmites and stalactites.

On a road trip from Belize to Panama, we drove all the small roads from Belize to Nicaragua so we did not see a single traffic light and enjoyed seeing all the small towns along the way instead of just the touristy areas and saw where the locals live and work. Last year I went to Tanzania and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a friend as part of a group of 12. When I find a deal on sale, that’s where I take my next trip.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?

I'd have to say my science teacher from seventh grade, Mr. John Jackson. We went on a week-long trip to what was then Death Valley National Monument. In order to get selected, one had to apply with a proposal to do a science experiment. I proposed testing the pH and oxygen levels in Death Valley’s bodies of water. On that trip we experienced snow, rain and a heat wave all within a week’s time. It was a memorable and life-changing experience for me to travel and see things I’d never seen before.

We celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month during May. What does your Asian heritage mean to you and coworkers?

A photo of Joey Chong ascending Mount Baldy, the highest point in Los Angeles County, California
Winter offers a refreshing time to ascend Mount San Antonio, better known by its nickname of Mount Baldy, the highest point in Los Angeles County, California at 10,064 feet. (Personal photo courtesy of Joey Chong.)

Sharing information means an opportunity to share a little bit of the culture with others. It’s enriching to know more about each other. I've taken a lot of coworkers out to eat at authentic Chinese restaurants and ordered food that they may not have eaten before like chicken feet or thousand-year-old eggs. Chinese pork jerky is always a hit. I also like to share some of my ethnic foods at lunch, such as foods for the Chinese New Year which is usually in February or a type of pastry for the Moon Cake Festival. Moon Cakes are a traditional Chinese dessert served at gatherings in the fall that is like an offering between friends and families and it symbolizes harmony or longevity. Food has a really long history in my culture so I enjoy passing on the tradition of these ethnic foods.