By Amanda Stamper
On Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, women and men gathered in northern California for the first Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX). The 10-day hands-on prescribed fire training, similar to other Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) events that have been taking place across the country since 2008, included participants with a full range of wildland fire qualifications, from seasoned burn bosses, incident commanders, and prescribed fire managers, to first time firefighters.
Diverse organizational backgrounds were also represented, including federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribes, universities, and more. I had the pleasure and privilege of serving as the event’s Incident Commander, a unique opportunity to both mentor and be mentored by some amazing women and men in fire.
This all started a few years ago in the women’s bunkhouse at a TREX in North Carolina. An unusually large group of women happened to end up training there together, and realized just how rare it is to have so many women in fire in the same place at the same time.
Since the 1980’s, there have been increased efforts to recruit women into wildland fire, yet women still represent a relatively small proportion of the workforce, filling 10-12 percent of wildland fire positions and seven percent of leadership roles.
In that bunkhouse meeting, the concept of WTREX training was launched to help fill this unmet need of engaging women in wildland fire and in leadership roles. The WTREX goal was to provide both women and men the opportunity to explore unrealized potential for retention and recruitment of women in fire management, while conducting prescribed fire operations designed to advance their formal qualifications and enhance understanding of fire ecology and effects, communications and outreach, prescribed fire policy and planning, all while applying fire to several hundred acres in need of being burned.
Nikole Simmons of The Nature Conservancy’s Allegheny Highlands Program in Virginia and Monique Hein, currently a structural firefighter and EMT with the Lafayette Fire Department in Colorado who then worked for The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, decided a women-focused TREX needed to happen. They reached out to the Fire Learning Network (FLN), sponsor of TREX events through Promoting Ecosystem Resiliency and Fire Adapted Communities Together (PERFACT), a cooperative agreement between the USDA Forest Service, agencies of the Department of the Interior, and The Nature Conservancy, for help. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Area Fire Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension and coordinator for the NorCal TREX as well as other TREX events, stepped up and offered to facilitate the first WTREX.
Lenya and I recruited members for WTREX’s Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT) from a variety of agencies and backgrounds. Some of the key players included:
- NorCal TREX’s IC Phil Dye, a municipal firefighter from the Bay Area, agreed to help with training;
- US Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Regional Fuels Program Lead Dana Skelly worked with Monique in Plans;
- Legendary female leaders Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the first female Type 1 IC, and Kelly Martin, Fire Chief for Yosemite National Park, filled roles as Deputy IC and Operations;
- USFS Training Officer Tracy Stelman, who supported us with the logistical foundations to make us successful;
- Chris Ferner from ESRI, who created top-notch maps in addition to teaching others tricks of the trade;
- Lenya’s mom Tara Quinn, who has been catering TREX event, preparing delicious meals to nourish participants;
- and the one and only Johnny Stowe, a wildlife biologist and cultural resource expert who led group yoga each morning.
I learned much from every one of these individuals about how to mentor, be mentored, inspire, be inspired, and have fun learning and burning together, all while returning fire to people and places in need in northern California.
Participants traveled from 12 different states and four countries, and included 38 women and six men. This event built upon existing TREX emphasis on cooperative burning and learning – its aim was to elevate and reinforce the importance of female perspectives and leadership, through the creation of a supportive environment for women and men to explore the need for diversity and inclusion in wildland fire management — much more than just numbers, but diversity in different approaches to our work.
WTREX participants served in qualified and trainee positions to implement prescribed burns throughout the region. They trained with the full range of specialized equipment used most commonly in prescribed burning, completed pre and post-burn monitoring, practiced leadership skills, and learned about local fire ecology and fire management. The training took place in diverse forest and rangeland ecosystems across northern California, including open prairies, oak woodlands, mixed-conifer forests, and chaparral. Presentations by local scientists, land managers, and female leaders in various aspects of fire management highlighted each evening.
Lenya describes WTREX as an effort to create “a space where women and men can discuss and understand current issues and work together to build a more inclusive, supportive culture in fire.” The problems encountered by land managers in an ever-increasingly complex fire environment need elevated diversity in intellect, talent and perspective in order to solve them, an approach that will necessarily involve more leadership and participation from women than what we are seeing today.
There is a saying in ecology that that diversity begets diversity, pyrodiversity and biodiversity being no exception. With a group as culturally diverse as that which gathers for most TREX events, live prescribed fire training takes on a similar diversity of experiential learning and exchange of ideas. WTREX took it to a new level. The cross-pollination bred new perspectives and approaches to management, all of which lend to a wider array of approaches to the complexities that management of wildland fire continues to deliver, more abundantly each year. When people who are new to fire work with people who have been doing it for some time, new techniques surface, and different kinds of fire are applied to the landscape. That can come by accident, when someone is just figuring out how to use a drip torch, and it can occur more deliberately as a result of learning about fire effects and ecology and applying a new method of firing. Cultural diversity also begets pyrodiversity.
Responses from participants to the experience were more than we anticipated. A second-year firefighter who was thinking of leaving wildland fire now says she wants to stay, in part because she knows she has a group of women to reach out to, who believe in her, and support her. Another said she got more training in the 10 days she spent at WTREX than in six years working on crews and engines.
Experienced women who had encountered barriers to advancement were able to train and develop leadership skills, thereby earning qualifications to lead and participate in wildland fire management activities. Men who participated reported leaving more motivated to invest in women in fire through changes in routine behaviors, and focus on retention. Four women were certified as fallers, and two as prescribed fire burn bosses. Spirits were lifted, confidence was built, and a new model for how to invest in women in the wildland fire service was revealed.
The overwhelmingly positive results of the first WTREX prompted FLN to continue its commitment to support an event again in Yosemite National Park this fall. Participants will have the opportunity to assist with burning in one of the National Park Service’s crown jewels, as well as returning fire to nearby landscapes managed by the Stanislaus National Forest and local tribes. Stay tuned for updates on this and other women-in-fire opportunities and initiatives.
Links to media and other information about WTREX:
- Washington Post article featuring WTREX: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/few-women-fight-wildfires-thats-not-because-theyre-afraid-of-flames/2016/11/19/452c6cba-ac19-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html#comments
- WTREX Coordinators Amanda Stamper and Lenya Quinn-Davidson on Jefferson Public Radio: http://ijpr.org/post/women-fire-line#stream/0
- WTREX Coordinators Amanda Stamper and Lenya Quinn-Davidson on Humboldt State University Radio: http://khsu.org/archives#stream/0 Search for Thursday Night Talk Sep 29th 2016 in the archive.
- WTREX Story Map: http://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=7c78d33225094cc39487021e9c60449e
- Check out Northern California Prescribed Fire Council and #WTREX2016 on Facebook and Twitter.