Culture change; Canadian works to alter biases
By Laura King
At first, Jane Park is reluctant to get personal. Then she opens up about diversity and inclusion in wildland fire.
“Definitely, the wildland fire community is similar to other very hierarchical organizations that are typically male dominated and not very diverse,” Park says.
Park is a fire/vegetation specialist with Parks Canada in Banff, a massive and picturesque national park near the Alberta border with British Columbia.
“I think it’s a function of the stereotype of the rough, tough firefighter over the years that has kind of promoted that male-dominated, not diverse, kind of culture,” Park says. “And, and it’s been fairly slow to change.”
Canadians know Park on Twitter as Burning Ideas (@fireminded), a prescribed fire expert and advocate for diversity.
Park’s Korean-Canadian parents instilled in her the strength to stand up for her values and beliefs.
“I’m a Korean Canadian woman who is a child of immigrants, working in fire,” Park says.
“A lot of focus has been on women and fire, and I’m a huge advocate for that, but there’s really not very much diversity in the fire management profession.
“And so, understanding the challenges of Black and Indigenous and people of color within these types of professions is something that people need to think about. I think sometimes that gets lost because obviously more people can relate to just the gender issues, because that affects everybody, regardless of their background.”
Recently, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) surveyed wildland firefighters and found that two of every five women and one of every four men have experienced disrespectful workplace behaviors; 57 per cent of LGBTQ+ members experienced incidents; and 10 per cent of men and four per cent of women experienced violence on a deployment.
CIFFC and its member agencies in Canada are developing an equity, diversity, and inclusion framework, which Park says is overdue.
“We’ve learned more about how representation matters,” Park says, “and when you don’t see yourself, you don’t go for it.”
Within Parks Canada, Park says, there are several initiatives that are targeted toward diversity inclusion and culture change. And there are concerted efforts across wildland fire agencies.
“I started working on some of the diversity stuff in 2011 or 2012, so it’s been almost 10 years,” Park says. “And I wouldn’t say that there’s been a massive change, but it is slowly picking up, and I’ve seen a change within my own program [recently] where I have more women and diversity than I have had in the whole time I’ve worked, but it comes with a lot of work.”
For example, Park says, there are still microaggressions, and basic ignorance in the field.
“I’ll attend meetings as the incident commander with my operations section chief, who’s male,” Park says, “and everything will be directed at him and not me.
“He has noticed that, and obviously I’ve noticed that as well – people meeting me and not expecting that I’m the incident commander or thinking I’m a summer student, or just making assumptions that I don’t have experience because maybe don’t look like I’ve been working in the field for the last 20 years. I think there are inherent biases . . . that play a role in how I feel as an incident commander, how I’m treated or are respected.”
Park’s path to a top position in Canadian wildland fire was lengthier than most of her counterparts, or, as she puts it, less direct.
“I obviously have no evidence that it’s directly related to being a woman of color,” Park says. “But at the same time, I do know that there are other people in similar positions or who have made it to similar positions that have not had to do what I’ve done to get there.
“There have been experiences I’ve had that are not positive. I’ve experienced discrimination and harassment on fires, and even my deployment to Australia, I was the only woman out of about 28 of us, and that’s noticeable. It was a great experience. I met amazing women over there. But it wasn’t all rosy.”
What’s frustrating, Park says, is that recruitment depends on people seeing themselves in an organization before they apply or put effort into getting hired.
“As an incident commander and on incident management teams, I don’t see people who look like me as my peers, or in many of the operational settings. And it is a deterrent.”
Park started with Parks Canada in 2002 as a warden but quickly transitioned to the fire and vegetation management section. She gained experience with prescribed fire, spent time in Yukon, worked in Haida Gwaii, then made her way back to the mountains.
Essentially, Park runs the fire and the vegetation management programs – wildfire, suppression and response.
“[That’s] dealing with any wildfires that occur in our park. We have two initial attack crews, as well as a number of other fire technicians. Our program here is really focused on fire restoration and implementation of landscape-level prescribed fire. That program was started in the early eighties by my predecessor, [renowned fire and vegetation biologist] Ian Pengelly. We do a lot of prescribed fire and that’s based on the fire regime here in Banff, which is heavily dominated by lightning in July and August, but also Indigenous cultural burning.”
The role includes fuel management, teaching FireSmart™ principles, and study.
“Obviously we’ve been affected by a lot of fire suppression and the consequences of that,” Park says. “There’s a lot of fuel management, FireSmart work, and research and monitoring. On the vegetation side of things, we’re looking at the restoration of native vegetation communities, which intersects with the fire side of things, and also controlling of invasive and noxious weeds and non-native plants and providing restoration and reclamation advice for any development that goes on in the park.”
In Banff, Parks Canada is both the land manager and the fire management agency.
“Our primary mandate in Parks Canada is the ecosystem and maintaining all our ecosystem processes and components for future generations,” Park says. “So we can do a lot of multi-objective ecological objective burning. We have done a lot of fire history work in terms of evidence-based fire management.”
The target is to return 50 per cent of the historic fire cycle to the landscape, or about 1,400 hectares annually burned either through prescribed fire or managed wildfire.
“We have specific fire management zoning within the park. So it’s not just full suppression everywhere. We concentrate our suppression-management strategies around our infrastructure, the communities like the Town of Banff, transportation quarters, and other critical infrastructure.”
Still, Park notes, the suppression mindset is prevalent.
“There’s a fire-suppression culture all over the world, and not just in Canada,” Park says “The history of our fire program within Parks Canada stems from fire suppression. When the Parks were established, a lot of the Indigenous Peoples in these areas were extirpated
from this area and along with it, their cultural-burning practices.
“There is anecdotal and traditional knowledge all over the country that shows that Indigenous Peoples were using cultural burning for a variety of reasons, whether that was to promote a habitat for prey species, or travel routes, or medicinal plants, and a general ecosystem health.
“And I think a lot of that knowledge still does exist in some places and in some places it’s been lost largely due to that colonization of the landscape. But I think there is more of a push now to work together with Indigenous nations on cultural burning and restoring that back to the ecosystem and knowledge exchange between fire agencies and fire keepers within Indigenous nations.”
Essentially, Park says, there’s an effort to “reset” the forest after 100 years of suppression.
“I think more agencies look at the whole suite of fire management tools, especially in the context of climate change. This isn’t the time to double down on suppression. In a lot of places the fire agency is not the land manager, so we need to start thinking about things like prescribed fire and cultural burning.”
That’s not the only thing Park is working to modify.
“More personally, I’ve worked a lot on diversity and discrimination and harassment and those types of issues within the fire service, trying to change the culture so that it’s easier for people like me – women or people of color, or Indigenous people – to be in the upper leadership positions in fire agencies.”