John Kese, a senior in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, spent the better part of the summer hiking through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, leading a team of fellow students researching how much fuel mass exists in the forest understory and estimating wildfire risks for the area.

For any student aspiring to work in the outdoors, this would be a challenging adventure and an opportunity to gain new skills in the field. For Kese, the experience was something more: “When a doctor tells you that he’s not sure you’ll ever walk again, and you find yourself running up and down the mountains in the Smokies, that’s reward enough right there.”

A difficult diagnosis

John Kese was supposed to be a baseball player.

“All along, my goal was to play college baseball,” he said. “I love the game, and that was my focus growing up. But during my freshman year of high school, I suffered an injury diving for a ball. That injury led to an MRI, which led to me finding out I had something called Arnold-Chiari malformation.”

Kese’s condition was severe: the base of his brain was blocking the flow of spinal cord fluid. A large syrinx — a rare, fluid-filled cavity within the spinal cord — developed, necessitating a whirlwind year of hospital stays and rehabilitation efforts. Kese endured 11 brain and spine surgeries, and had shunts placed in his spine and brain.

“I had to learn how to do everything all over again,” he explained. “I had to learn how to walk and how to write and everything in between. It was a rough time, but it built me into a better, stronger person. It made my family closer, our entire community closer. Everybody came together and was strong, and that helped me get through the worst parts.”

Igniting a new passion 

With a career in baseball no longer an option, Kese found a new path forward through his childhood interests in forestry and the outdoors. While growing up in Virginia’s Bedford County, he helped his parents manage 600 acres of family land. The work included conducting prescribed burns with his father as part of their land management plan.

“We’d been doing prescribed burns on our land since I was a kid,” he explained. “When I turned 16, I started to really focus on getting my certification to work on wildfires. I was in my senior year of high school when I finally got it, and I remember getting my first detail on a fire out in Goshen. That experience was when I knew I wanted a career in this field. Walking off a mountain when it’s pitch dark and all you can see are the glowing embers throughout the woods was a life-changing experience for me.”

A presentation at Kese’s high school by the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s director of recruitment helped him find his way to Virginia Tech.

“John Gray Williams came and gave a presentation to us where he talked a lot about the forestry major,” Kese recalled. “Afterwards I went to talk to him, and what he told me about the program really stuck out. I was invited to campus for a private interview and tour, and I fell in love with the place.”

Measuring fire risk

To Assistant Professor Adam Coates of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Kese stood out almost immediately.

“I first met John in my role as faculty advisor for the Wildland Fire Crew at Virginia Tech,” Coates explained. “He really impressed me with his work ethic: he’s prompt and professional and self-directed.”

When Coates needed someone to lead a group of students to research wildfire hazards and risks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park this summer, he knew just whom to ask.

“We have photos and data documenting how much material was located at specific sites within the park 15 years ago,” Coates said, outlining the project. “Since that research was conducted, a lot of different diseases and pests have potentially affected the forest significantly, most notably the hemlock woolly adelgid. Our task was to revisit these plots and measure fuels as they exist today to determine how fuels and potential wildfire risk might have changed over time.”

To conduct this research, Kese and two other Virginia Tech forestry students, Nick Foley and Brandon Hughes, spent days hiking through the forest, using a GPS unit to locate the various plots scattered throughout the park.

“Normally we’d start our day at sunrise and be out there for 12 to 14 hours,” Kese said. “It was hard work — the Smokies are real mountains, so it was a struggle for us to acclimate to the terrain. But it was a great experience, and we met some great people out there.”

Kese’s work on wildland fire research this summer extended beyond the Smokies. He helped doctoral student George Hahn complete fuel tallies in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. More recently, he traveled to Athens, Georgia, to work with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station.

“They agency is putting together a complex program in Georgia and Florida,” Kese explained. “The science is new, and it’s still hard to measure and get accurate data when it comes to wildland fires. But it was great to work in new terrain, in a different fire regime.”

Coates says that these kinds of summer field experiences are a valuable test for aspiring wildland fire technicians.

“With anything related to working with fire, so much of it is about flexibility,” he said. “Being able to adjust when conditions change and having the right attitude that you’re going to learn something no matter what happens, even if things don’t happen quite as you expect them to, is crucial to having success in the field. John has that flexibility and the capacity to get the work done. He’s a hard worker, and I appreciate everything he’s done this summer.”

“I’m doing something that I love every day”

For Kese, the life-changing path from aspiring baseball player to aspiring forester has been a trial by diagnosis that has led to a future in fire.

“They say that good things come out of bad situations, and I think that’s definitely the case for me,” Kese reflected. “I try to look at those things and where I am now, where I’m doing something that I love every day, and I wouldn’t change it. I think there’s a reason why something like this happens, and I’m very grateful for the path I’m on now.”

–Written by David Fleming