Meet Shyh-Chin Chen, who immigrated from Taiwan to pursue academic and career interests, is a research meteorologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station in California. His co-workers describe him as insightful and very focused about using meteorological advances to fight wildfires. He’s found the U.S. Forest Service to be an attractive place to make a difference and is building on his list of 100-plus university research publications with additional Forest Service research publications. He is also a guy who just likes to have fun -- whether it’s learning new languages, tending his fruit trees or garden or just letting off steam through listening to music or participating in both Western and Eastern sports. He goes by the name of “Shyh” instead of Shyh-Chin and pronounces it just like “shy.” When he introduces himself, he says “How do you do, I am Shyh, but I am not shy.” Why is he so passionate about his work? Maybe because he and his family live in Southern California where they have lived through and continue to experience wildfires literally on their doorstep. He relates his 2003 and 2007 wildfire experiences and nearly faced evacuation again this May.
How would you describe your job?
I’m a research meteorologist here at the Pacific Southwest Research Station. Our purpose is to try and protect people’s lives and their property. We want to protect the life of the firefighter and reduce the cost of fire suppression. I’m connecting the meteorology side of fire with the firefighters to give them better tools to fight wildfires more effectively with more timely information.
What excites you about our job?
As a trained meteorologist, I’m excited about using my talent so it can be applied to real situations to help people actually involved in fire suppression work. In my previous work at a university, I didn’t know who was actually using my research. With the Forest Service, I get to work closely with other fire meteorologists and fire captains from Southern California by attending meetings to discuss fire situations, see the progress we’re making and introduce new developments to help fight wildfires.
I recently developed a web tool called Firebuster that will be able to deliver high-resolution weather information directly to firefighters on site. In Southern California, the firefighters fight in tough, mountainous terrain. Very complicated wind patterns travel through the hills and valleys. Our firefighters need information on a highly detailed scale that isn’t available anywhere else.
Why do you call it Firebuster?
Well I’m a Ghostbusters fan so I thought Firebuster sounds like a pretty good name because it fits the purpose. Currently in the testing phase, we take much larger scale weather conditions and reduce it to a very small scale so it’s more relevant to the actual terrain where the fire is occurring. This means we can actually work with the firefighter who can tell us what kind of information they need for what location and in what format. They send their request at any time of day via the internet to Firebuster and our super computer generates the high-resolution weather model forecast for that location. Using a handheld mobile device, they can receive the weather forecast right away.
What are the benefits?
The benefits are more accurate forecasts delivered more quickly into the hands of the people that really need it. My goal is to get weather forecasts at the smallest scale possible for the furthest time range possible - a three-day forecast. Currently, I can get down to one kilometer resolution and hope to get it even smaller. I’d also like to be able to make a fire danger forecast five months before fire season arrives to determine how severe the fire problem may be.
Have you had any particularly interesting or unusual experiences in your Forest Service career? Do any particular memories stand out?
In 2007, there was a very famous fire in San Diego where I live. The Witch Creek Fire was one of the major fires burning in Southern California and burned thousands of homes. I was about to fly a red eye that day to a fire conference on the East Coast and the fire was burning in Ramona, about 35 miles from our home. My wife asked me ‘Will we be okay?’ I said ‘Don’t worry honey, this is the research I do and if the fire really gets to our home, the fire would burn everything between Ramona and here. We shall be okay.’ When I landed in Boston, I got a phone message from my wife saying ‘Honey, come back. We’ve just been evacuated.’
Houses in front of and in back of our home burned down. In the middle of the night, a police car with its light spinning sat outside our home and a firefighter pounded on our door and told my wife to get out. She had five minutes to get dressed, grab her driver’s license and leave. Later, she saw a firefighter on TV spraying water on top of our house’s roof.
In 2003, just before I joined the Forest Service, the Cedar Fire, one of the largest in California’s history, burned about two miles from my house. I was packed, but we didn’t have to evacuate.
In May, I nearly had to evacuate again with the Bernardo Fire. I didn’t know whether to feel honored or scared when the California Fire Department named a fire after my neighborhood in Rancho Bernardo, which is merely three miles from the origin of this fire.
How has that affected your work?
Well it’s really motivated me to help predict fires faster and more accurately in hopes we can prevent or put out the fires more quickly and allow people to safely evacuate as needed.
Because the fire came through my backyard in 2007, I’m more aware of the need to pay attention to fire safety around the house. I had a big pile of firewood under my roof, close to the house and it burned, though a firefighter put it out – clearly not a good way to do things. All my backyard fruit trees were damaged as well as some of the house structure, but the house was saved. Now I’m more conscientious of the need to remove all fire hazard material away from the home and clean up the field around my house.
If you could live in another era when would that be and why?
I’d say the 1970s because those were my high school and college years, some of the best times of my life because of the music and the movies. Credence Clearwater Revival – CCR – they were my favorite group. Now that was real music! As far as movies, I probably watched “Amadeus” at least 50 times and can recite almost every line of the movie. It’s so fascinating because of all the talk about people with talent and how he (Mozart) used or didn’t use his and how he didn’t compromise his principles. The music reminds me of listening to classical music with my Dad. Now in midlife, I’m starting to listen to rap because it is a different way of expressing feelings which I enjoy, plus I get to listen to it with my kids.
What kinds of hobbies interest you?
I love to learn different languages as a way of understanding heritages. I speak Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese, and English. And I am learning Japanese.
Gardening is my relaxation after work, where I think and see how things grow. I don’t spend any money, just use compost from my kitchen waste and see what comes up every spring. It’s still spring right now so I don’t know what I’m going to get. It’s like that quote, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates.’ Before you open it, you don’t know what’s in there. This is a very fun way to garden and you get unexpected results.
I’ve participated in two particular hobbies in the past 20 years. I play tennis every week and practice Japanese Kendo, a martial art involving bamboo sword fighting, which is sort of like fencing. It’s healthy because I get all my anguish and bad feelings out on the court plus it’s great exercise. There are a total of eight degree belts to be at the top and I’m a third degree black belt right now -- not sure if I’ll go any higher.
In May, we celebrated Asian Pacific National Heritage Month. What does your Asian heritage mean to you?
One of the things I like to tell my co-workers is that I am Taiwanese, not Chinese and surprisingly not too many people know the differences between Taiwan and China. I’m really a Pacific Islander with one-quarter Chinese blood, Indonesian heritage and Aboriginal Taiwanese. So I say I’m a proud mixed-breed, just like our President.
I’ve served on a committee as a chair and member that promoted diversity at the station and in our working environment-- the Community Enhancement and Diversity Team. That meant we focused on service within our work and community which highlighted our similarities even though we came from different backgrounds. I thought one of the best ways to understand a people’s heritage is to share food from a different culture. What you find out is though our appearances may be different we share the same ultimate purpose.