Alumni Spotlight: Justin Kiel

Photo Courtesy of Justin Kiel

Justin Kiel, a UCSB alum who earned his BA in Geography with an Emphasis in Geographic Information Science, now develops maps to help response teams contain wildfires. Kiel, who has been involved with both the Sequoia and Whittier response efforts, is a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist for Veteran’s Emergency Technical Services (VETS).


VETS offers emergency incident information to assist state and federal government agencies in the management and containment of some of the largest wildfires each year. VETS has joined forces with Aspen Helicopters, based in Oxnard, and is on call 24/7 to respond to requests for precise infrared locations and mapping of the fire perimeter anywhere in the western United States.


Photo Courtesy of VETS


Typically, Kiel works on a team with Senior Line Pilot Jim McCrory who has been flying for Aspen for 29 years and coincidentally has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography from Penn State and also took Geography courses from UCSB. Kiel is responsible for “mop-up” work, which he describes as creating constant up-to-date maps using infrared mapping data to identify the problem areas. McCrory and Kiel hover over the hot areas using infrared cameras and provide critical geospatial data to ground crews and aircraft firefighters who are digging out and extinguishing the hot spots. “I never anticipated I’d wind up working out of a helicopter…” shared Kiel.


Kiel most recently worked with McCrory on a team that contained the Whittier Fire which burned in the Santa Ynez Mountains between Lake Cachuma and western Goleta and prompted evacuations for thousands of people.


“Working the Whittier Fire was a gratifying experience,” McCrory said, “it helped the local community, and working with local resources from the Los Padres National Forest made it interesting.” McCrory explained that he and Kiel were an effective team since they were both familiar with the backcountry of the forest.

Photo Courtesy of VETS


Many employers like VETS are seeking graduates who have studied GIS as a module during college. “My job is 50% GIS and 50% remote sensing, almost exclusively my degree,” Kiel said, “In college, I enjoyed remote sensing a lot. (Environmental Optics taught by Dr. Dar Roberts) was by far my favorite class at the university and has definitely been a big help.”



With his UCSB education, strong analytical skills, and the courage to endure tough conditions, Kiel proves that GIS Specialists are in high demand and, when integrated with public safety, enjoy a challenging and rewarding career.