Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Sierra Brown

July 25th, 2018 at 3:45PM

Sierra Brown. Photo by Del Rosa Hotshots.
Sierra Brown. Photo by Del Rosa Hotshots.

A newly-minted smokejumper from the Northern California Geographic Area Coordination Center, Sierra Brown previously worked on an engine crew, a helitack crew, as a Hotshot, and as a city firefighter. Her love of adventure, including jumping out of planes, made smokejumping the next logical career move.


Where did you grow up?

I moved around quite a bit growing up, and I think it made me more independent and adventurous by the time I was in high school. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and shortly after moved to Laramie, Wyoming. Then we moved to Ft. Collins, Colorado, and eventually to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I went to elementary school.  After my parents’ divorce, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with my mom while my dad and brother stayed in Flagstaff. When I was sixteen, I spent a year in Perth, Australia, where I got hooked on surfing and the ocean. Then I was off to Hawaii for college.


Who or what inspired you growing up?

I knew who all the pro female surfers were from the 80s and 90s. I remember searching for female surfers in videos or magazines, but if I could actually watch one surf in real life it was pretty exciting for me. This was rare in Western Australia and even in Hawaii in the mid- to late 90s. I’m glad to see it’s a little different now, and I see women out in the water frequently. 


Brown with members of her Heaps Peak Helitack crew clearing scorched hazard trees. USDA Forest Service photo.
Brown with members of her Heaps Peak Helitack crew clearing scorched hazard trees. USDA Forest Service photo.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

I love spending time in the water—surfing and especially spearfishing. I’ve spent a lot of my life working on charter dive boats and enjoy freediving the Channel Islands and Mexico, where I currently live on my sailboat. I also spend a lot of my free time running trails and ultra-marathons. My work allows me to travel, so I take advantage of that.  Time spent with my family has also become more important to me, and I’m fortunate that I have active parents that I can hike, ski, swim, and run with. 


What do you do in the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

I currently work as a smokejumper out of Redding, California and recently passed rookie training. I’ve most recently worked as a firefighter with San Diego City Fire Department. I started with the Forest Service in 2003 working on an engine crew on the Los Padres National Forest but decided that I wanted to be a Hotshot. I spent the next three seasons on El Cariso Hotshots and then went to the Del Rosa Hotshots for five seasons. I also worked on Heaps Peak Helitack crew out of Lake Arrowhead. But during all of these years, I always wanted to be a smokejumper. So finally, at 38 years old, I was able to fulfill that dream.


What is your favorite part of your job?

Jumping out of the plane, of course!


How has your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?

Brown loves spending time on the water during her off hours, especially surfing and fishing. Photo by Don Orr.
Brown loves spending time on the water during her off hours, especially surfing and fishing. Photo by Don Orr.

Going through smokejumper rookie training as a female at an older age was a challenge for me, but I didn’t have the confidence to apply when I was younger. I wish I had, because it might have been easier physically! I’ve got a lot under my belt at this point, including 13 years of fire experience; my education (which includes a BS in geography, a BFA in studio art, an MFA, and I’m currently working on my Masters in GIS); my experiences as a boat captain on dive boats, fishing boats, and my personal sailboat; and years of being involved in a variety of competitive sports, including mountain bike racing, competitive surfing and swimming, and running ultra-marathons.

Whenever I face challenges, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional—and I think that ultimately they are all intertwined—I can look back at all the other challenges in my past and remind myself that I’ve probably faced something similar. The ultra-running has been particularly helpful because I know that I have the endurance to keep going even if I’m in a lot of pain. I have also found that this concept of endurance carries over to life challenges that are much lengthier, such as my San Diego Fire Academy training, which was 18 weeks long, and the eight-week-long smokejumper rookie training.  


Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.

I have an art project called ‘Shoe Canoe’, which is a canoe that I’m building out of flip flops I found on the beaches of El Salvador. I plan to paddle it from San Pedro, California to Catalina Island.


Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.

I’m pretty proud of myself for passing the San Diego Fire Department Academy and also for passing Smokejumper Rookie training. These were both very challenging for me.


Brown prepares for her first jump as a smokejumper. Photo by Josh Mathieson.
Brown prepares for her first jump as a smokejumper. Photo by Josh Mathieson.

Why do you think your field is important?

The field of firefighting in general is important because the management of wildland fires is becoming more complex with the growth of the wildland urban interface and impacts of climate change. More specifically, smokejumping is a specialized field that offers a self-sufficient and quick response initial attack resource that can reach remote areas.  


How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I think our work needs to be perceived as pertinent, and that we are doing a good job and being professional. I have experience both working for the Forest Service and for a large municipal fire department, and most of the time the municipal departments have more media coverage because they are seen more often by civilians who understand what city firefighters do. The promotion on the Forest Service is important so the public understands what we do.


Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?

I have had some of the best times of my life as a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service.  Being a hotshot in particular allowed me to see a lot of beautiful places while also being challenged. It gave me the opportunity to learn a lot and gain confidence as a young woman, and I’m still learning at an older age as a rookie smokejumper.