Student Stories: Wildfire studies in West spark senior's interest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After studying wildfire in a year-long independent research project, Brian Crooks last summer journeyed to the West for the first time to see the effects up close in the Sierra National Forest.

The senior forest science major in the College of Agricultural Sciences saw his textbooks come to life on the trip.

"It was a really great way to get a firsthand look at some of the tree species I've been studying," he said. "Now I can have an intelligent conversation with someone about Western tree species and what they look like."

During June and July 2012, Crooks ate, worked and slept in the national forest. "We lived in tents the whole time," he said. "We only went into town every couple of weeks to get supplies."

At the direction of his research adviser -- an internationally recognized expert on the effects of wildfire -- the Brush Valley, Pa., native studied the area and how it would be impacted by wildfire.

"We did a lot of fuel reports -- checking to see what fuels there are, what their characteristics are and how likely they are to ignite -- but we didn't see any wildfires."

Western forests need controlled burning to consume the build-up of fuel in the understory, Crooks noted. Without controlled burning, the West is prone to massive blazes that engulf property and damage homes, a common sight in the region in recent years.

"My internship not only took advantage of the knowledge I gained from my independent study, but I also was prepared by things I learned in my classes at Penn State," he said.

Perhaps Crooks' favorite internship experiences were the times spent trout fishing on weekends and during breaks from work. "It was really remote and peaceful -- it was the best fishing I've done in my life," he said. "Needless to say, we had many fish dinners."

Crooks wants to conduct more research after graduation -- probably out West -- because he loves the Sierras.

"When you do something with forest science, the implications and repercussions of that are going to be around for a very long time," he said. "So you need to think very long term about how your actions are going to impact the future."

Learn more about the forest science major.

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Last Updated July 23, 2013