Dr. Kayla Johnston has been a Fire and Fuels Scientist on the Natural Hazards and Forest and Agriculture teams since September 2022. Earlier this year, she completed her PhD in Rangeland Management & Fire Ecology from the University of Idaho. At SIG, Kayla works on a variety of different projects and tasks but especially enjoys modeling fire effects and fire behavior to help inform wildfire and fuels management and planning. Models are imperfect, but can provide valuable insight across small and large landscapes that can be used to inform emergency response plans and indicate areas of concern to prioritize for fuel treatments or other management actions.

Kayla decided to work for SIG because she was drawn to our high valuation of both professional experience and scientific inquiry to solve real-world problems. In Kayla’s words, “the work done at SIG provides actionable items for land manager consideration and significant insight for policy.” The SIG team has a deep-seated interest and investment in seeing the landscapes we work on remain or become sustainable and resilient. Working at a company and with colleagues who hold high standards for our work and are passionate about the success of the projects, the business, and overall support of sustainable and resilient ecosystems and land management is truly inspiring.

Kayla, helping with a prescribed burn in Florida in 2023.

Prior to working at SIG, Kayla was a wildland firefighter and fuel technician with the US Forest Service for 7 years. Now, in addition to her work at SIG, Kayla maintains her fire management skill set and finds fulfillment in volunteering with The Nature Conservancy and for local small landowners to implement prescribed fire and other fuels management. Participating in prescribed fire and fuels management allows her to keep her skills sharp and to continue helping the environment and building community and capacity in her free time.

Kayla, Thatcher, Bungee, and Chute at the park near Kayla’s house

Picture taken the day Kayla rescued Bungee from a kill shelter in South Carolina.

Kayla’s compassionate nature also extends to rescuing dogs and helping them overcome past traumas. She grew up on a 12-acre hobby farm on the Oregon Coast, on a road where animals would often get abandoned. Family and friends would also surrender animals to her family because they knew Kayla’s family would accept them and had plenty of space and love to share. Alongside her husband, Kayla currently owns three rescue dogs and a cat: Thatcher, Chute, Bungee, and Ozzy. Kayla’s first rescue dog, Thatcher, is a pitbull and Australian shepherd mix that she adopted in 2014. Thatcher goes everywhere with Kayla, over the years he has been her sidekick for many forestry and fire fieldwork projects including pile burning, thinning, timber marking, and timber cruising. Chute, adopted as an adult in 2021, is a Texas blue heeler who’s partially blind from a shotgun wound to the head and partially deaf because of untreated ear infections he endured in his life before being rescued by Kayla. Because of his vision and hearing impairments, the world can be rather scary for him, but Kayla and her husband have been helping him to overcome his fears and live a full, happy adventure dog life. Bungee, adopted as an adult in 2022, is a German shepherd who had been abandoned near a longleaf pine forest Kayla was helping to prepare and prescribed burn with The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina. Kayla took him to the local animal shelter, but she learned it was a kill shelter and they had over 100 dogs. Bungee has the sweetest demeanor and Kayla knew she couldn’t leave him there. When her prescribed fire week ended Kayla ditched her plane ticket home, rented a car, adopted Bungee, and drove him across the country to her home in Washington. Kayla loves each of them dearly and invests time and effort into training them to become good pets who live happy, healthy lives. She takes every opportunity to take them on adventures, whether it’s snowshoeing to frozen waterfalls and gathering huckleberries in northern Idaho or hiking in the scenic landscapes on the Oregon Coast.

Bungee, Thatcher, and Chute on a hike in northern Idaho

Rescuing animals has taught her a lot about mutual respect, kindness, consistent and clear communication, and patience. Kayla believes that each of these traits is integral to the success of any relationship. After taking care of so many, she knows that there is no love comparable to the love of a dog who is helped to overcome trauma and abuse and taught to trust. The most rewarding moments are when the dog is brave or calm in a situation in which they previously would have had a meltdown or run to hide. In those moments, Kayla knows that she’s shown the dogs that the situation is safe and that they can trust her to keep them safe.

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