From Fire to Fellow: Introduction to James Sedlak, SBC’S New CivicSpark Fellow

James Sedlak

James Sedlak

2021-2022 CivicSpark Fellow

Growing up on the East Coast made me relatively unaware of the power and beauty of the Sierra Nevada Region. Life in a suburb outside of New York City felt relatively disconnected from ‘the great outdoors” and the issues associated with living among the mountains. Despite this bubble-effect, I had a love for nature and adventures any small child might relish. When not in school or playing summer sports, I would explore nature – whether it be camping with family and friends or searching for small critters in my town’s local reservation. I was fascinated with almost all animals and I loved having pets – from turtles to tree frogs, a dog and geckos. But as I grew up, I found myself not having the time for those interests. High school, sports, and jobs assumed priority as I started to focus on what kind of career and social networks I would pursue.

After graduating college, I moved to New York City to work as a paralegal, the first step of a seemingly long, successful legal career. A few years in, I started to feel disconnected from my values and unfulfilled in my duties. I felt that I wasn’t doing enough for the greater good so I began to look elsewhere for public service work. At about this time, wildfire coverage permeated East coast news outlets and I immediately felt a new calling. I would ditch the dress shoes and legal filings for logging boots and hand tools. Working for the US Forest Service to fight wildfires appeared like an adventurous way to unite my love for nature and this rekindled desire to serve.

I landed a job with the Eldorado National Forest in 2018 where I worked three seasons. My brief tenure as a forestry technician provided me with countless adventures and wonderful connections to truly inspiring people. Above all, it allowed me to help make a positive difference on the ground, among frontline communities. However, as the hardships of this career choice grew more complicated for my personal life, the wildfires grew more intense and ever demanding on resources. I sensed it was time to switch gears. After fighting fires all over the West Coast – from Arizona to Alaska – I realized there was a tremendous amount of work to do off the firelines; I wanted to transition into climate adaptation planning and community resilience work, especially for underserved communities facing such climate threats firsthand. I began to think about work opportunities to prevent catastrophic wildfires or at least help communities better prepare for them.

As I started to dive deeper into the adaptation and mitigation space, I grew more passionate about developing resilient and sustainable solutions for communities facing environmental adversity. I volunteered for a think tank, Earth Refuge, raising awareness about climate-related migration. I joined the American Society of Adaptation Professionals to participate in network learning events and grow my understanding of adaptation issues. And most recently, I interned with the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program (ICARP) to support adaptation planning efforts and tracking resilience efforts across state jurisdictions. Now, I feel extremely fortunate to join Sierra Business Council because I’m eager to learn from such an impactful non-profit that has been a leader during such trying times. This organization truly does good work, connecting the regional community, strengthening its economy, and fostering a more resilient environment. 

Throughout my service year as a CivicSpark Fellow for 2021-2022, I’ll be working on a few projects. The main focus of my work will be helping a local government agency, my beneficiary, build climate resilience by developing a vulnerability assessment pursuant to legal requirements in addition to implementing and promoting energy efficiency programs pursuant to the beneficiary’s other planning resources. Otherwise, I will be supporting SBC’s other Climate and Energy initiatives like Sierra CAMP’s Sierra Nevada Region Vulnerability Assessment and the Sierra Nevada Energy Watch (SNEW) program. As a full-time resident of the Lake Tahoe Basin, I truly look forward to doing this work in a place I call home.

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