Warren Heilman, 54, joined the Forest Service in 1990 after working for a brief time at Computer Sciences Corporation, a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency. A trained research meteorologist, Warren conducts studies at the Northern Research Station’s East Lansing, Mich., office in several areas, including how weather impacts fire behavior. His work and the work of other scientists help firefighters and fire managers get a better understanding of how fires spread across the landscape. He also works on developing tools to predict fire-weather and examines the impact of changing landscapes on climate.
What one word would you use to describe yourself, and why?
Persistent. I don’t give up very easily. If something is nagging me or I don’t understand something or something doesn’t make sense in the realm of science, for example, I’m pretty persistent in trying to figure out why things occur the way they do. I like to continue investigating until I’m satisfied. Until I’ve figure out the problem. I guess that works pretty well given what I do.
What haven’t you figured out?
Many things. And I guess that’s part of being a scientist. There are always unknown things out there; new questions that can be posed. For example, in science in trying to understand fire-atmosphere interactions, we’ll probably never figure it out completely. There are always new questions one can raise, and it’s a complicated arena of science that you just have to continue pursuing. You can’t be discouraged by hurdles being thrown in your face. You have to be persistent in plugging on and moving forward and try to increase our fundamental understanding of how fires really interact with our atmosphere. There are a lot of things I don’t know and haven’t figured out, but I’m pretty persistent in looking for scientific explanations of why wildland fires behave the way they do.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your life?
Professionally and personally, certainly my parents – Les and Elsie Heilman of Eureka, S.D. – probably had the biggest influence on me and kind of setting me straight. They modeled my interests and modeled my attitude. Some of that persistence that I previously talked about, certainly professionally, yea, that’s a big characteristic of mine. But personally that’s also a characteristic. Don’t give up. Keep pushing forward. That’s something I learned from my parents. I value that a lot as something they taught me, particularly growing up and going through grade school and high school and then college. Keep trying not to get discouraged and try pushing forward. They were a big influence on me.
What do you see, hear or feel when you go to work?
Some of it is outdoors doing observations, but I would say a significant percentage of what we do is numerical modeling, which is crunching away on computers. What I see and what I hear probably isn’t very interesting to the reader of this interview. I think of what I feel with the people I work with in this office who are doing similar kind of science as what I’m doing. I sense the excitement in what people are doing. The people around me demonstrate an excitement of what they are doing. They are very dedicated to what they are doing, and to me that create a very nice environment to work in even if the physical surroundings associated with computer work probably isn’t very exciting to an outside observer. They may think it’s a pretty boring type of environment. But it’s not the attitude of the people around me or the attitude I have. When I do go out to the field and we make observations and take measurements near prescribed fires, mainly, there are a lot of things you see, smell, hear, and observe. That can be a very chaotic environment. It’s an extremely interesting and extremely complex environment that one sees. You can see smoke, you see flames, and you can hear the fire. That’s a very different kind of environment that one senses.
In what ways do you raise the bar for yourself and others around you?
That goes back to the numerical modeling. We’re really using some of the only tools available to really investigate these problems or questions. One can’t physically go out and stand in the middle of a wildfire and make measurements. It’s a dangerous environment, and it’s physically impossible to do that. What choices do we have but to develop tools that are able to simulate and predict what that environment is so that we don’t have to physically go out there and try to make those measurements that, well, are impossible to do. What keeps me out there is we are using the only available tools that we have to advance our physical understanding of what is going on with fires. I’m a meteorologist by trade, so there are different ways so study the weather and study how the atmosphere behaves. There are times when one can go out and get out in the woods and get out into an outdoor environment and make measurements of what the weather is and how the atmosphere is behaving. The behavior of the atmosphere can be described through some fundamental, governing mathematical equations. You can predict or simulate what is happening in the real world through these mathematical equations. As a meteorologist with lots of math and lots of science, I find it exhilarating. Spoken like a true nerd.
If you could be or do anything else what would that be?
Probably a professional baseball player – if I was younger and had more talent. I’m a big sports fanatic. I like a lot of different sports, but I’ve always loved baseball. It’s my favorite sport. I loved playing it when I was younger, and I thought it would be fun to be a professional baseball player. If I could go back and talk to that young man . . .
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.