Women of wildfire: revolution, superheroes, and the case for diversity in fire management

A year ago, I carried a fire-themed poster at the Sacramento Women’s March. “California communities for resistance and resilience,” it read. I mostly made a fire-themed poster because I am a nerd who loves fire ecology, and my research shapes the way I see the world. But it also reflects a broader truth relevant to the march: the history of fire in the United States reflects the history of this country as a whole. One part of that is the history of women in wildfire and forest management.

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My poster for the Women’s March in 2017.

A few years ago I was on a plane, reading a paper on my laptop about fire on my laptop. A man in his 60s or 70s sat in the seat to my right. He noticed what I was reading and asked me about it. If I’m in a good mood, I usually enjoy talking with strangers on planes, especially about my work, so I was happy to talk. It turned out that he had been a longtime employee of the U.S. Forest Service. I forget what we talked about at first–something general about issues facing fire and forests today, most likely. But then the conversation took an abrupt turn that I didn’t anticipate, when my neighbor informed me that the Forest Service had gone downhill ever since they had started hiring more women. They’re totally unqualified, he said to my face. I was stunned that he would just say this to my face, in such a casual way, given that he knew my field. I tried to come up with a good response on the spot. I knew there were impressive women in forestry and in fire. At my very first field job related to fire, with The Nature Conservancy, I worked with a woman who fought fires when not doing monitoring fire effects on plants. She was petite, like me, and a total badass. I met female smokejumpers in Missoula during my first year of grad school.

I said something like, surely there are many qualified women, and if there are not, maybe that’s because they aren’t encouraged to build up the necessary skills or to go into the entry level positions that would make them better leaders in the Forest Service. Nope, he said, women just weren’t suited to it. At this point, I gave up and put on my headphones, but he was still keen to provide me with old-timer wisdom. I would be a conservative when I was older, he insisted. I told him that most of the older folks I knew were, in fact, liberals, and that I intended to stick with it.

I later learned that this guy’s opinion on the decline of the Forest Service was not uncommon. Earlier this year, I read Stephen J. Pyne’s thick history of fire in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, Between Two Fires. The book provided some context for my seat mate’s attitude.

During the 60s and 70s, Pyne writes, there was a “fire revolution” going on alongside the environmental movement and the Civil Rights movement: ideas about wilderness and the natural role of fire caught on in the West, bringing big changes to how the men who fought fire for decades saw their profession, which had previously been entirely about battling the menace of fire and extinguishing every ember. The Forest Service began to incorporate some of the new ideas, ending the suppression-focused “10 am policy” in 1978. At the same time, the Forest Service was losing some of its power in the field due to the activities of the BLM, NPS, and other agencies and organizations. The result was a lot of early retirement by the men who felt that the Forest Service was changing too much.

Around the same time, in 1972, a Forest Service sociologist, Gene Bernardi, filed a complaint against the Forest Service, alleging sex discrimination for being refused a promotion and pay raise, based on the Equal Employment and Opportunity Act of that same year. This became a class action suit on behalf of all women in the USDA. The case was finally settled in 1979. The result was a decree that the USFS had to hire enough women to match the workforce as a whole, up to 43% women. The combined effect was a lot of new people, many of them women, at the same time as a loss of a lot of old timers.

Pyne describes the result of this history in Between Two Fires, and while I usually admire his work, the description did not sit well with me. It’s undeniable that these huge demographic shift changed the culture and priorities of the Forest Service. It’s probable that the organization did have to hire folks with less experience to meet the terms of the consent decree.

But Pyne’s description of the Forest Service post-1980 rests entirely on quotes from disgruntled old-timers. He claims that the Forest Service was “softer and gentler” thereafter and gives the overall impression that everything went downhill for the USFS. He summarizes with a quote from an old timer saying “It became a better organization to work for, but not a better organization.” Zero quotes from Bernardi herself. Zero quotes from any women involved whatsoever. Zero quotes from anyone who felt differently about the shift.He writes about it not just as a widespread perception but the truth that he himself believes. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Pyne appears to agree with the sentiment of those he quotes. After all, he was a firefighter himself in the 60s and 70s before turning into a historian.

Sacramento Interagency Hotshot firefighter Kim Seitzinger fights the Myrtle Fire in Custer, SD in 2012.

But most of this went down decades ago. And that was just the Forest Service, though that organization remains a dominant player in the wildfire field as a whole. Where are we now?

There are certainly more women in the field than there were in the 70s.But the consent decree that resulted from the Bernardi suit expired more than 10 years ago, the field is still largely male-dominated, and there remain many barriers for women. Actual numbers vary based on job type and employer. The USFS labor force in 2006 was 38.3 % female, compared to 21.6% in 1972.  According to the USFS, 27% of their foresters are women, while 15% of foresters nationally are women. But only about 12% are women in permanent fire suppression jobs.

Many women working in wildfire today don’t see their experience as particularly “soft and gentle.” Discrimination and sexual harassment have continued into recent decades. In a 2016 hearing, members of Congress heard testimony from USFS employees, including fire prevention tech Denise Rice, who described incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

In November 2017, the USFS acknowledged its systemic problem with harassment, revealing that they had “substantiated 83 cases of harassment including 1 sexual assault (that employee was removed); 34 cases of sexual harassment (employees were removed/terminated, suspended or received reprimands depending on the offense;) and 51 employees were found to have engaged in other, non-sexual harassment.” Of course, these figures only include cases that were reported in the first place and could be substantiated.

Beyond harassment, there are other barriers that come up in a male-dominated field. Many women have shown that they have the strength and skills to succeed in a variety of wildfire jobs (see a few recent profiles here and here), but training and tools designed for men can make it more difficult. For example, uniforms designed for men’s bodies may be ill-fitting, which can be unsafe in a wildland firefighting situation.

My intent here is not to demonize the USFS or any other organization as a whole: there are lots of wonderful people who work there doing great things for diversity and for fire management, and I’m lucky to know some of them. This is an issue that most institutions are dealing with.

Nonetheless, there are now a lot of exciting opportunities for women interested in careers in fire and organizations focused on addressing barriers for women in the field. The Women in Wildfire Bootcamp, founded in 2004, is going strong, and new Women’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) have taken off in the past few years. 4,736 people like the Facebook page “Wildfire Women“, which serves as an online community of women in fire. These opportunities provide mentorship, a network of women in fire positions, and practical tips, like the best way to wield a chainsaw if you have a smaller body. Despite increases in women working in fire, most women still work in places where they are one of a few women or even the only one, and having access to these networks can be essential to their success.

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Amanda Stamper, fire manager for TNC in Oregon and one of the leaders of WTREX events, showed me how to use a drip torch at the SAFE burn.

I heard about many of these opportunities from organizers and participants at the recent Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) Fire Congress in Orlando. Fire ecology is a funny field: ecology itself has okay representation of women (41% of members of the Ecological Society of America in 2006, and many more in younger age brackets). But fire ecology attracts a lot of folks who have had some experience in wildfire fighting and management, which is more male dominated.

Still, AFE is doing alright. At the recent conference, a day-long session was devoted to inclusivity, titled “Faces within the Fire: Toward an Inclusive Culture”, and one of the “fire circle” roundtable discussions was focused on “Using Human-Centered Design to Solve Inclusion and Diversity Dilemmas in Wildland Fire”. The Fire AFEx Plenary session featured 10 speakers, and 3 were women. The departing president of the organization is a woman, and one of the three lifetime achievement winners was a woman. Obviously, these numbers aren’t at 50%, but for a field that has huge overlap with wildland firefighting, which is very male, it’s nice to see women and diversity concerns featured prominently in the program. The numbers will also likely change with time: at the Student Association for Fire Ecology-sponsored prescribed burn following the conference, 9 of 11 students participating were women, plus many of the Nature Conservancy participants who joined us.

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Women were well represented at the SAFE burn.

Diversity matters. It’s an equity concern: we want all those who want to and have the potential to be successful in the field of wildland fire to be able to do so. But I’d argue that a diverse workforce is also necessary for forest management in the 21st century. There have been calls to reform forest and fire management for decades. What Stephen Pyne calls the “fire revolution” took place 50 years ago. But there has not been much change on the ground in either fire management or diversity–there’s been little enough change in management that an article in the Huffington Post this week (incidentally featuring a woman in fire) described a prescribed fire program as “revolutionary.”

The Forest Service and many of its peer institutions are still largely fire-suppression organizations dominated by white men. Are they are experienced? Sure. And experience is important, especially for safety on the fire line. But experience can also lead to entrenched patterns, institutional culture, and incentives that are hard to change. If we are serious about reforming fire management, we should support diversity in all levels of fire management.

The guy I sat next to on the plane a few years ago felt so confident that his opinions on women in fire and forestry were obvious truths about women’s and men’s abilities. Confident enough to say it to my face. This was the way the world of fire was, and that’s all. We all hold some unquestioned assumptions like this.

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The first page of Wildfire’s debut, from Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics

I recently came across a superhero that I’d never heard of before, a heroine from the Golden Age of comics*. Her name? Wildfire, alter ego Carol Vance Martin. She first appeared in 1941, one of the first female superheroes, now mostly lost to history.  She survives a forest fire as a child, and can thereafter put fires out but also control fire and use it for good. I couldn’t help but think of her at the SAFE Prescribed burn last month, as more experienced women in fire planned our approach, showed me how to use the drip torch, and gleefully encouraged me to set the land on fire (for restoration, I promise!).

We love to talk about change in terms of revolution–the fire revolution, the sexual revolution. As if these things can change overnight, or in a single decade. But even major events like the end of the 10 am policy and the consent decree from the Bernardi suit are just steps in a slow crawl of a revolution. So let’s keep working for policy change, for representation, for better treatment of the land and the people who live there. Perhaps we can bring back Wildfire as our mascot: a woman in fire, using fire to do good.

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*Today, comic book readership is male-dominated, but in Wildfire’s era, comics were popular with the masses, and a 1944 survey showed that 91% of girls read comics, and there’s some evidence that girls read more comics than boys back then. A comics retailer reportedly stated in 2006 that girls’ brains weren’t wired for comics. How wrong our assumptions can be.

2 thoughts on “Women of wildfire: revolution, superheroes, and the case for diversity in fire management

  1. Pingback: Nursing Clio Sunday Morning Medicine

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