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Photo courtesy of Western Colorado Conservation Corps
Environment

Western Colorado’s Women’s Fire Crew Is Igniting Change in Firefighting

The group of women are doing more than simply providing diversity for an industry suffering from staff shortages and weak retention rates.

It was a hot, dry evening in June when Kat Brace was sent on her first fire. She and the young women of the Western Colorado Conservation Corps’ Women’s Fire Crew repelled from a helicopter to the south side of the Beavertail Fire in Mesa County. When the sun retreated from the sky, butterflies filled her stomach as she landed on the charred forest floor.

“We were the last flight in before dark,” Brace says. “I had nerves and adrenaline going the whole flight and first day.” Brace and her fellow first-time firefighters began surveying the land for smoldering spots of heat to stamp out or “mop up,” a term she would get used to in the coming months.

Through the smoke, Brace slept on a tarp under the stars a safe distance from the flames alongside 18 other young women, most in their early 20s. The Women’s Fire Crew would wake up with the sun the next morning and continue working on-site for four days, in a succession of 16 hour shifts with 30 minutes for lunch and short breaks.

The maximum amount of time firefighters can work on an active fire is 14 consecutive days, and the Women’s Fire Crew is first on the list for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) fire dispatchers, who contact crews across the United States when wildland fires are in need of more people. Woosley and Brace were deployed to six fires throughout the 2021 season.

“I was hooked after my first fire,” Olivia Woosley, the program’s crew leader says. “I like fire because I like working my butt off for something important, but I think a lot of women doing it now, like myself, accidentally stepped into the profession.” Woosley joined the crew after recommendation from a friend. Brace stumbled upon the program while searching for environmental jobs on Indeed.com. Growing up, neither woman dreamed of becoming a firefighter.

In college, both took courses on environmental and forestry studies. Woosley, who grew up in a rural town in southern Missouri, remembers as a girl being most comfortable outdoors. She went on to play the mellophone in the marching band at the University of Missouri. The equipment she brings to fight fires today, like a chainsaw and fire shelter, is “much heavier” than the brass instrument.

Brace studied in Vermont where, in the months leading up to being on the Women’s Fire Crew, she would go on hikes with 40 pounds in her backpack to prepare for trekking mountainous terrain with firefighting equipment of the same weight. When they’re not fighting fires, the two enjoy hiking (free of weight) and going out into national parks for recreation.

The Women’s Fire Crew, now in its third year, was born out of a partnership between BLM and the Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC) aimed at diversifying the historically male-dominated industry and providing women with hands-on training for becoming a wildland firefighter. Crew members earn $12 per hour, as well as a $38 stipend per day. After the season, which runs March to November, participants gain their certification—known as their “red card”—and can begin applying for full-time firefighting jobs across the U.S.

“About three years ago, BLM identified the shortage of female wildland firefighters,” Marcus Kissner, associate director of WCCC, says. “Ultimately, the goal is to get young professionals to want to pursue a career in this field and in wildland fire through state, county, and federal agencies.”

Photo courtesy of Western Colorado Conservation Corps

According to recent data from the National Fire Protection Agency, roughly seven percent of all U.S. firefighters in 2018 were women, and only about 12 percent of wildland fire suppression jobs were held by females. Woosley and Brace, like many young professionals, never envisioned becoming firefighters themselves. Hiring and retention, no matter what gender the applicant identifies as, is also a growing problem for U.S. Forestry Service departments nationwide.

“All of a sudden, it feels like we’re competing for workers in a whole new job market,” says Cassandra Fleckenstein, BLM administrative officer and director of the Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camp in Oregon. “For a lot of young professionals, working at McDonald’s is a lot easier than being out on the fire line for 14 days.”

In September, President Biden visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to address the problem of staff and equipment shortages. Earlier this summer, he requested the federal minimum wage for federal firefighters be raised to $15 an hour.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, its lowest-paid Colorado firefighters previously made around $13 per hour. Some firefighters, however, say $15 is still too low. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group representing federal firefighters, told Colorado Public Radio in July that the pay raise is a good start, but lawmakers must come up with long-term solutions.

Fleckenstein believes changing the image of firefighting through all-female training programs like the Women’s Fire Crew offers more to the industry than the prospect of gender diversity; it also helps address the need for well-trained workers, especially at a time when climate change is accelerating drought conditions, and fire season has intensified.

“I really hope these programs inspire women to get into management positions in the fire industry,” Fleckenstein says. “Right now, we don’t have women in those positions making decisions for future women firefighters.”

In the meantime, Woosley has been offered a position to fight fires alongside seasoned professionals in Grand Junction next season. Brace is currently searching for firefighting jobs throughout the West. Both women anticipate working in wildland fire for years to come.

“I didn’t really think much of the firefighting before doing this program,” Brace says. “I’ve really enjoyed it, and so now I am actively applying to fire jobs to further my career.”

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