In the male-dominated world of wildland fire in America, the Bureau of Land Management is working to address the gender discrimination, harassment and assault that have been endemic to the culture for over a century.
BY EMILY STIFLER WOLFE
Jenna Lyons loved fighting fire. Part of an elite hotshot crew that deployed to fires around the West, she spent two summers in her early 20s hiking into the backcountry, carrying a loaded pack and sleeping on the ground for weeks at a time. Her crewmates, all men, were good friends, and together they cut down trees, dug fire line for 13 hours straight, and worked all night setting prescribed burns.
But there was one thing she loathed. At the end of a long day, she’d walk into the fire camp cafeteria and several hundred men from other fire crews would look up from their plates, visually undressing her. The soot and dirt covering their faces contrasted the whites of their roaming eyes. “It’s the most disgusting feeling I’ve ever had,” Lyons said.
She wanted to disappear. Often the only woman in the room, Lyons knew her crewmates had her back, but still. She’d look down at her phone, or go eat alone in the crew vehicle. It happened on almost every big fire.
The male-dominated world of wildland fire in America grew out of a culture laid down more than a century ago. Back then, civilian men were pulled from saloons and brothels to fight the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in the Northwest. Today, stories like Jenna Lyons’ are familiar to the few women who work in the field, and because firefighters work together across organizational boundaries, these experiences aren’t confined to a particular government agency.
In March 2018, PBS NewsHour ran a two-part story about gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault in the Forest Service’s fire program, exposing a workplace in which perpetrators are rarely punished, and reporting can stifle or end a victim’s career. Since then, dozens of women have told me that the policies in place to prevent these problems are not effective.
This wasn’t the first time the fire services were in the hot seat. In 2016, Yosemite Chief of Fire and Aviation Kelly Martin testified before Congress about the harassment she experienced during her career, and numerous allegations of sexual misconduct came out of Grand Canyon National Park.
In response, the Bureau of Land Management’s Fire and Aviation leaders created a task force focused on diversity and employee well-being. Launched in November 2016, the Employee Centered Retention Team found that BLM suffered from the same issues as other firefighting agencies. They’re now working on education and mentorship programs, and on May 1 published a long- term plan to diversify hiring and improve retention.
The BLM’s efforts aren’t just about gender parity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires in the West now occur nearly four times as often as they did in the 1980s, burn more than six times the land area, and last almost five times as long. Increasing diversity on fire crews is about the need to fight fire more effectively in the face of a warming climate.
“I’ve always learned that if you have the same kind of people with the same backgrounds, experiences and education, when faced with challenges, they’re most likely going to come up with some of the same solutions,” said Howard Hedrick, second in command of the BLM fire program. “If you have a more diverse group, I think you’ll come up with much better solutions.”
The conversation right now is focused on women, especially since the #MeToo movement brought the topic to the forefront. But in the long run, Hedrick said, this will also be about hiring a workforce with ethnic, racial and educational backgrounds representative of the communities they serve—and treating them well enough that they stay.
“I couldn’t speak up. I have to work with these people.”
BLM manages a 10th of the country’s landmass, or 247.3 million acres, more than any other government agency. Housed under the Department of the Interior, the agency oversees grazing, oil and gas leases, recreation, conservation and other uses. As of July 2017, it had more than 10,400 employees, and nearly 3,000 in its fire program. Of those in fire, 18 percent were women. Among firefighters, particularly the high-level hotshot and smokejumping teams, the ratio is much lower.
The agency’s 11 hotshot crews employ one to three women on a typical 20-person team, and this year there are three female smokejumpers of 140 nationwide. The six- person engine crews that comprise most fire line employees usually have one or two women, or none. Between all federal firefighting entities—the BLM, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the number of women in permanent fire operations positions hovers around 12 percent.
Few women and minorities apply to work on the fire line in the first place, and retention is difficult for all employees. The job’s physical nature is self-selecting, plus most positions are seasonal, based in remote locations, and require long stints away and out of cell reception—all of which double as risk factors for harassment and assault.
Simply injecting women into the workforce isn’t effective. Armed forces in Canada, Norway and Australia have used the critical mass approach to gender integration, a social theory suggesting that 15 to 30 percent of a minority is necessary for that group to succeed. But fire leaders still remember the 1981 settlement to a class action lawsuit that forced the Forest Service in California to match the civilian workforce’s gender ratio, at 43 percent women. To fulfill the consent decree, as it’s still known, women were sometimes promoted over more qualified men, leading to resentment, attrition and degradation of institutional knowledge.
That resentment still lingers. “I was told three years ago during a friendly conversation with a male coworker that I was only hired because I was female,” wrote Lorena Williams in a High Country News opinion piece published in March. “Women are often seen as intruders, as tokens who were only hired to meet some kind of quota. We are treated as pariahs in our professional fields, regarded as little more than sexual-harassment cases waiting to happen.”
Even so, she wrote, firefighting culture is not inherently hostile. “For every coworker that has excluded me from the ‘boys’ club,’ 10 others have made me feel welcome and safe in a professional work environment.”
Like Williams, the women I interviewed for this story said their experiences on the fire line were generally positive. They spoke highly of male coworkers and friends, and of the work itself. But at some point, almost all commented on the gender-related conflict they put up with to succeed.
“On one side of the fence, this job is so cool,” said Lacey England, a former firefighter with the Gallatin helicopter rappel crew in Montana. “I get to go places, work really hard, be outside, work with good people. But on the other side of the fence is my daily environment. This culture I’m working with wears me down a little bit more every day. … That’s why women leave. It’s just not worth it.”
“This culture I’m working with wears me down a little bit more every day… That’s why women leave. It’s just not worth it.”
Sixteen firefighters attended the Women and Leadership conference at Boise State University in September 2016. Afterward, they were supposed to brief fire leadership on what they learned. Instead, half of them recounted the discrimination and harassment they’d experienced on the job.
Some of them cried. Jolie Pollet, then second in command of the BLM fire program, still calls it the “gut punch session.”
“Here I was—a woman—I can’t just say, ‘Thanks for your time. Have a good year,’” Pollet said.
So, Pollet and Hedrick, head of BLM fire at the time, hired the diversity and inclusion task force. The assignment: Identify core challenges in the agency’s fire program.
With 29 years of fireline experience between them, the three women on the task force devised a plan that included the lowest ranking firefighters and went up the chain of command. They drove to five Western states over three months in early 2017, meeting with more than 150 employees to gather information on workplace culture. Early on, at a district in Utah, they asked a group of mostly men about family-life balance and the lack of female firefighters, but the conversation stalled. So, they switched tacks. “How is it for you, having a family?” they asked. “What do you struggle with?”
“You could see the looks on their faces,” said Tiffany Fralie, a member of the task force. “We heard, ‘I don’t have a relationship with my kids,’ and, ‘I’m divorced now because I’m never home.’”
After airing their own frustrations, many men relaxed enough to discuss women on the fire line, and harassment. Female firefighters, however, rarely opened up. In one instance, a woman pulled them aside afterward. “I couldn’t speak up,” she said. “I have to work with these people.”
That May, 100 BLM leaders met in the conference room at the Red Lion Hotel in Boise, Idaho, to learn about the initiative.
They talked about how strength and toughness were often valued in hiring and promotion, above communication and emotional intelligence. They brainstormed ways to improve work-life balance for firefighters. And they discussed how those with families needed more support—especially women, who are often pushed out of the career during or after pregnancy.
After the two-day training session, reactions were mixed. “One of the comments was, ‘I thought this stuff ended in the ‘70s,’” said task force member Jamie Strelnik.
When the assignment ended soon after, that summer’s massive fire season was already ramping up. Ten million acres burned nationwide, 153 percent of the 10-year average. The team figured the project was over, but a handful of participants from the training ran with it. Some started mentorship programs at home. One male supervisor helped a female engine boss return to the work after having a baby.
“I thought this stuff ended in the ‘70s …”
Success will require buy-in from leaders at all levels, and those people have limited resources and competing needs—like putting out fires. Other challenges include the inherent elitism of a life-and-death job, the current political climate, and the fear of speaking out.
“You don’t want to be labeled as that person,” said Fralie, who experienced harassment while working on an engine crew years ago. Coworkers would ask what she thought of women in porn magazines, and made explicit comments directed at her about the size of their genitalia, but she didn’t recognize it as harassment because she was so assimilated to the culture. Now the acting center manager of a fire dispatch center in New Mexico, Fralie says reporting a transgression would still be hard.
“It hurts you professionally and in your personal life, because most of the people you work with are your friends,” she said. “It’s not a culture where we’re free to talk about things or call people out.”
The two firefighters on the second BLM diversity and inclusion task force are now bucking that trend, both personally and professionally.
In February, Strelnik went public about the repeated sexual harassment and retaliation she experienced over her 17-year Forest Service firefighting career, a #MeToo moment she says was made possible by the catharsis of working on the initiative. Amos Lee, a supervisory engine module leader at BLM’s Boise District, isn’t ashamed to say he wants to spend time with his family instead of being gone for six to nine months each year. Many firefighters do, he says.
This time the assignment is focused on implementation. The project list includes providing family housing and childcare facilities for employees in rural areas; re-evaluating physical testing requirements; and supporting independent, state-level education and mentorship programs. One of their top recommendations is hiring a permanent diversity and inclusion employee, a position BLM fire leadership is now in the process of creating.
Because the task force is based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which houses all federal wildland firefighting entities, their work has the potential to influence fire culture across the board. And the Forest Service is following suit. Interim (now permanent)chief Vicki Christiansen rolled out an action plan that has included listening sessions with all 30,000 employees, establishing a support structure for victims, and chartering an employee advisory board to gather ideas and solutions for improving the work environment.
For fire to occur, you need fuel, oxygen and a heat source. Diversity won’t change that, but it can change how we interact with fire. In the dry heat of August 2001, Sara Brown flew into a small, backcountry blaze in Zion National Park with another female firefighter. As the helicopter pilot circled the landing zone, a quarter-acre fire smoldered around a single, tall ponderosa pine. On the ground, alone, they saw no flames or smoke coming from the tree. Brown’s partner suggested they cut it down in case there was a fire at the top. This is how firefighters have done things for a century, and how they are trained today. But Brown, who had more experience, took a step back.
“It was a big, beautiful, living tree,” she wrote later. “If it wasn’t obviously burning, why cut it?”
They put out the ground fire, camped under the stars, and found not a sign of smoke in the morning. As they hiked away, Brown looked back at the plateau and saw the lone tree on the horizon. She knew they’d made the right choice.
Now a Ph.D. fire ecologist studying the intersection of social pressures and fire science, Brown says we have built ourselves into a dangerous, expensive, ecologically unsound realm, in terms of fuels and our perceived control of fire. “We are quickly realizing that we probably never had control, and we certainly aren’t going to have control in the future.”
Brown says the change that’s needed—allowing more fires to burn, and increasing use of prescribed fire—will require altering the political landscape and public perception, as well as a major perspective shift for fire managers.
“Hopefully that shift in the relationship to fire will allow a more diverse view to truly be at the table,” she said. “I think women have a strong role in making that shift.”
Freelance writer Emily Stifler Wolfe was the founding editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine, where this article was originally published. Reporting for this story was also supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.