a firefighter monitoring a controlled burn

The women battling wildfires and breaking barriers in the American wilderness

From rappelling down helicopters to leading hotshot crews, these women are driving change in the male-dominated forest service

Firefighter Kelly Lewis monitors the progression of a controlled burn in March as part of the Prescribed Fire Training Center program. Controlled burns are systematic, planned fires started for conservation reasons.

One hot and dry midsummer day in Utah, Hannah Gross went to her first fire. A brand new wildland firefighter in 2015, she had no idea where this assignment would take her and her crew as they approached the hill where fire was ripping through the trees.

Gross and her fellow firefighters climbed into a helicopter and surveyed the burn from above. When they reached the hilltop and got out, they tied in with other crews already digging a fire line close to the flames. She heard language she was still getting used to: “We’re digging hot line!” “I need you to swamp for me!” “We’re planning a burn out!”

From that moment, she was hooked.

“It was just an epic entrance into the fire world,” Gross said recently, reclining in her green Nomex pants, yellow Nomex shirt, and thick-soled leather boots in the Dixie National Forest. Now in her fifth year in fire, Gross is part of the Cedar City Hotshots—20-person teams of generally the fittest, most highly-trained firefighters who handle especially complex assignments. She recently earned a coveted permanent spot on the crew, a first step on the path to a leadership position.

Gross is one of a growing number of women wildland firefighters. Now more than 10,000 strong, they gather each summer, mostly in the western states, to defend national forests and public lands. In the past, women in this male-dominated field have faced implicit bias, sexism, and powerful gatekeepers who didn’t make them welcome. Today women still only make up 12 percent of wildland firefighters—but a number of initiatives have been created to increase the number of women in fire, foster their leadership capabilities, and improve their operational confidence in the field.

“We don’t hire women”

According to the National Forest Foundation, the first time women fought wildfires was around 1915, when wives of Forest Service rangers helped their husbands battle blazes in the Mendocino National Forest in California. All-female crews formed as early as 1942 in California, and in the 1970s in Montana, when men were deployed during World War II and Vietnam respectively. But women firefighters were little more than an anomaly until the 1980s.

In 1979, a female sociologist sued the Forest Service for gender discrimination after she was turned down for a position because the hiring supervisor wanted to wait for a male candidate. As a result, two years later, the Forest Service agreed to a consent decree, committing to giving women equal access to jobs across the agency, including in fire suppression.

Thanks in large part to women who were first hired onto Interagency Hotshot Crews in the 1970s and ’80s, today women are present in every facet of the wildland fire world. They’re prescribed fire specialists, who plan complex fires set to keep the forest healthy; Type 1 Incident Commanders, who manage teams of thousands on the most complex and dangerous fires; superintendents of hotshot crews, and engine captains.

One of the most prominent examples of this ascent is Shawna Legarza. She entered the wildland fire world in 1989, when women were often shunned or tokenized. Coming from what she called a “little hillbilly ranch” where hard work was the norm, Legarza faced her early challenges head on. In 1991, while attempting to get on a hotshot crew, Legarza called one crew after another from a payphone in downtown Las Vegas. “I’d say ‘Hey, I want to be on your crew!’ and one of them said, ‘We don’t hire women.’ And I was like ‘Okay,’ click! I’d think, ‘You don’t want to hire me, dude, your loss,’” Legarza remembers.

While working for Black Mountain Hotshots in Nevada that season, she remembers news crews swarming her. She didn’t understand their fascination: She was doing the same job as the men, so why did they care about her gender? She’d later learn that the Forest Service’s consent decree requiring equal job access had expired that year, and reporters were wondering if fire crews would continue to hire women. They did, thanks in part to the perseverance of women like Legarza who kept coming back.

In time, Legarza rose to one of the top jobs in the Forest Service: Director of Fire and Aviation. She took that post after decades of leadership on the fire line as a Hotshot Superintendent, Forest Fire Management Officer, and Fire Chief on the San Bernardino National Forest. She retired in June, leaving behind an agency with thousands of more women in its ranks than when she first started.

These days, most young women in fire hope the differentiation between men and women continues to diminish. “For years it was like ‘Hey guys and gal,’ but that distinction is slowly dying. We’re all firefighters,” says Rita Krantz, a 12-year firefighter on a helicopter rappel crew in McCall, Idaho. “I’m excited for the decrease in separation to continue. It kills the stigma.”

Krantz, a lifelong athlete and lover of the outdoors, came to fire for a physical challenge and a summer job before college—and never left. “When I wanted to apply for a federal job and people told me, ‘Oh of course you’ll get hired, you’re a girl.’...I didn’t want to get hired for that,” she says.

After spending seven years on a contract crew, she moved to the Forest Service rappel crew, sliding down a 250-foot rope from a helicopter to fires on hard-to-reach ridgetops. Responding to fires across the country, from the Florida lowlands to the high desert of Utah and the mountains of Washington, gave Krantz a feeling of purpose and community. In 2018, she gained a permanent leadership position on the crew.

Krantz, who can outrun most people on the crew, says that men and women do the same job out on the line. But women can be less assertive, potentially affecting their chances at ascending to leadership positions, she says: “One of the things our society does to women is to make us less confident and question ourselves.”

Training women leaders

Strengthening women’s leadership is the goal of an initiative called the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (PFTC). Based in Florida, PFTC brings small groups of firefighters to the southern and eastern United States in the winter for controlled burns, pre-planned fires that are started for conservation reasons. One cohort in the training is specifically dedicated to helping women become strong, assertive leaders.

The 2020 PFTC women’s session was led by Deb Flowers. As the field coordinator, she connects with local fire leadership to identify which areas need burning, teaches and mentors the younger women at the session, and identifies ways they can improve and work toward qualifications. During more than 20 years working in fire, Flowers has had her share of challenges.

“Fire is a competitive job…and sometimes I feel like for women you start out a step below, whether it’s things we internalize, or the environment we’re in that can have an effect,” Flowers says after a day of burning in Florida.

“For me I feel extremely fortunate in the supervisors I’ve had and the people I’ve known that have helped me along in my career. There have been times where people don’t want you to be there, they challenge you and do it more so than to other people because you’re a woman,” Flowers says. “Things like that make you take a step back and question, Why am I doing this? Well, because I like it and can’t let that one percent impact the job I like.”

In March, the women of PFTC travelled to the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, a military base in north-central Florida. The women gathered for morning briefing, went over the map of the area to be burned, and assigned roles: Burn Boss and trainee, Firing Boss and trainee. They also delegated which person would use fuel-filled torches to light the fire, and who would monitor the fires edge to make sure it didn’t cross the line. As the sun hit its peak, the fire burned hotter and faster. By the end of the day, when humidity levels started to rise, the burn objectives had been met.

Then the women circled up for an After Action Report, giving praise and constructive criticism to each other in their different roles. Unfortunately for this cohort, the session was cut short due to the spread of the coronavirus. So two days later, the women made their way back to their home forests, ready to implement the leadership tactics they had learned.

Nearly all the women at PTFC agreed that fire is more of a calling than a job. They’re away from friends and family nearly the entire summer, and in some cases months of the winter as well. But to Erika Davalos, one of the women at PTFC, it’s worth it.

“Meeting these girls reinforces the idea of what I do,” she said “This is a good reminder of what I am doing here, for the love of doing what we do.”

“A special dynamic”

Gross is a graduate of another initiative specifically designed to bring women into fire, the Women in Wildland Fire Bootcamp, a weeklong introduction for women completely new to the field. When Bequi Livingston, one of the first female hotshots, founded the program in 2012, women made up only five percent of the force. Since then, the share of women in the force has more than doubled.

How does a fire crew change when women work as equals alongside men? Gross said she thought for some time about the question—“and I ended up bringing it to the guys on the crew. There was a consensus that women bring an entirely different perspective to our profession. The crew dynamic is completely different. There’s better cohesion and overall attitude.” In addition, Gross said, the crew’s men suggested that their female comrades “don’t get tunnel-visioned as easily as men seem to get when tackling assignments,” and “tend to be better at maintaining a big picture perspective.”

Back in Utah at the Dixie National Forest, Gross and the rest of the crew finished their lunch and suited up again: buckling chaps, refilling chainsaws with gas and oil, and taking another gulp of water. Gross hoisted the saw over her shoulder and strode along the road with fellow firefighters, women and men headed together for the same tasks.

After an afternoon of cutting down trees, Gross reflected on what keeps her in fire: “Working alongside these people creates a special dynamic that I haven't felt anywhere else.”

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