What It's Like Being a Woman in the Male-Dominated World of Wildland Firefighting

They face unique challenges, longer odds, and sometimes outright hostility

Jun 8, 2016
Outside Magazine
Las Conchas Fire

Stephanie Windle, a member of the La Grande (Oregon) Hotshots, on the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico—at the time, the second-largest in state history.    Photo: Kristen Honig/National Park Serv

On a warm March afternoon last year, 18 women in flame-resistant pants, yellow shirts and hardhats were marching single-file through the piñon-juniper hills outside Tijeras, New Mexico. A radio crackled: “We’ve hit our trigger point. Follow your escape route out.”

The women about-faced. There was coughing. “The smoke is getting thicker. We’ve been cut off from the safety zone. Drop your packs, grab your shelter and go!”

Within seconds, 18 fire shelters were yanked from packs. The women were almost jogging, their boots stirring up sun-warmed pine needles and dust. “The fire is coming. You’ve got 10 seconds to deploy your shelters. Deploy, deploy!”

Minutes later, 25-year-old Kate Lacey—a senior firefighter with the Sandia Helitack Crew—walked through what appeared to be a herd of giant orange and green caterpillars. The caterpillars were fire shelters. This was a training exercise and there was no blaze in sight, but for the women facedown in the dirt, sweating and panting, the heat—and the pressure—were real. All were part of an all-female version of wildland firefighter training for the U.S. Forest Service. And all dreamt of becoming like Lacey, on track to get a coveted permanent position on a helicopter crew.

Lacey shook the shelters to confirm they were set up properly. “How’s everyone doing?” she asked. A few muffled voices replied: “Hot!” Then Lacey gave the all-clear and the women emerged, strands of hair matted to their dirt-smudged cheeks. “It was kind of scary,” admitted 24-year-old Tatiana Espinoza. “It’s hard to think fast. You can’t see anything under there.”

The simulation was the first of many trials the recruits were to face. Like all Forest Service firefighters, bootcamp participants must undergo five days of training and pass a written exam and fitness test. But women who want to make a career in the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of wildland firefighting also face unique challenges, longer odds and sometimes outright hostility.

That’s why former firefighter Bequi Livingston started these Women in Wildland Fire bootcamps in 2012: to give women a supportive place to get started. Her own first day of training, on Sept. 1, 1979, was far less welcoming: She was a 102-pound Texas track star in a roomful of burly men, and the office manager kept giving her funny looks. “Who are you, honey?” she asked.

Livingston replied, “I’m Bequi!”

“She looked on her sheet and back at me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve made a terrible mistake.’”

The manager had thought “Bequi” was a man’s name and tried to give Livingston an office job—women didn’t work fire in those days. But Livingston refused. She went on to become an elite firefighter called a hotshot, an engine operator, and the Forest Service’s Southwest fire operations health and safety specialist, her current job. Among her friends, she counts members of Apache 8, an all-female Native American crew, and Margarita Phillips, a now-retired smoke-jumping grandmother from Montana.

The path these women carved looks like unqualified progress. They battled discrimination, ascended to leadership positions and obliterated barriers. Women today hold some of the industry’s top jobs and have proven themselves on the West’s biggest fires. “We stand on the shoulders of women who came before us,” one told me. “They had it harder than we do for sure.”

But firefighting is still a men’s club, and for many women in the trenches, little has changed. Women make up 39 percent of the Forest Service’s workforce, but hold just 11 percent of permanent wildfire jobs. In other agencies that fight fire—the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the figure is as low as 6 percent. Even the U.S. military has done a better job of recruiting and retaining women.

The reasons are multiple. Women tend to be primary caregivers, so having kids can derail a career—most jobs don’t require you to find childcare for weeks on end while you’re dispatched all over the country. And many women firefighters find themselves in places where they’re the only females for miles. Even with a supportive crew, the macho culture can make it hard to stick around long enough to ascend the ladder—becoming a type 1 incident commander, a position equivalent to a one-star general, for example, takes longer than becoming a doctor.

For many women, these are stumbling blocks. But for some, the problems manifest in much darker ways.

In 2009, 26-year-old Alicia Dabney was supporting three kids and an injured husband on the Tule River Indian Reservation when she landed her dream job as a wildland firefighter. She was the only woman on her crew, but figured as long as she kept her head down and did her job, she’d be fine.

Still, she felt isolated and uncomfortable. One coworker posted fliers around the barracks that said “Alicia Dabney The Whore.” She says her supervisor insisted that she tell him when she was menstruating. Other coworkers left lewd voicemails on her cell, which she saved as evidence. Once, she tells me, a man sat on her head and “rode me like a horse” when she squatted to grab her pack. But because she needed the job, she stayed. “I didn’t know you could tell anybody,” she says. “I didn’t know who to tell.”

Then, about a year later, she alleges that a superior flung her onto a bed at a training session and put her in a chokehold. “He tried to rape me,” Dabney says. “I had to beg and plead and fight.” 

Eventually, she says, the attacker backed off. (Her alleged assailant still works for the Forest Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says it cannot respond to specific allegations because of privacy concerns or because cases are still pending.)

Soon after, Dabney broke down in the office of a female fire officer, who introduced her to Lesa Donnelly, vice president of a civil rights group called the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees. Donnelly helped Dabney file a complaint with the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., and brought her to a police station to give a statement to a USDA special agent. Over the next year, Dabney filed eight additional complaints with the Civil Rights Office. (Like many assaulted women, though, she never followed up with the police.)

Donnelly also helped Dabney realize that her experience was part of a pattern. In 18 years as a Forest Service administrator, Donnelly had heard dozens of similar stories. She connected Dabney with six other female firefighters who had recently experienced sexual harassment or discrimination on the job, and together they took the first steps toward filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all the female firefighters in the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, which covers California and the Pacific islands. Forty-eight percent of Forest Service firefighters work there.

The class-action complaint alleges pervasive sexual misconduct, discrimination and retaliation in the Pacific Southwest. Heidi Turpen, who joined the complaint later, says she was left alone in the wilderness without a radio or GPS after she reported harassment by a supervisor who had already been cited for workplace violence, including banging his head against a wall and making verbal threats. Another firefighter, Denice Rice, says that a division chief followed her into the bathroom, asked to watch her pee and repeatedly groped her. Worried that she’d be ostracized, she stayed quiet for three years. “Once you become that person (who files a complaint), you’re that person forever,” she says. But in 2011, after he poked her breasts with a letter opener, she came forward.

High Country News is conducting an ongoing investigation into the long history of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination in public land agencies and how agency officials handle these complaints. Want to share your own experience? Send a tip.

The region isn’t unique. Aili Johnston, who is not part of the complaint, says that when she worked as a firefighter in Oregon between 2008 and 2013, two women on her crew were raped by male colleagues, and another escaped an attempted rape. Bequi Livingston is aware of rapes in Arizona and New Mexico that went unreported because the victims were either too humiliated or didn’t believe that the Forest Service would support them. And an ongoing High Country News investigation has found that sexual misconduct against women is rife in other public-lands agencies, too. Sexual harassment was common in Grand Canyon National Park’s recently abolished river unit, and though the Park Service had been aware of similar issues since at least 2000—when half of female Park Service rangers surveyed said they’d been harassed on the job—the agency failed to act until recently. “It’s everything from benign neglect to outright abuse,” Donnelly says. “It’s systemic and it’s institutional.”

The latest complaint is on its way to becoming the third gender-based class-action lawsuit against the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region in 30 years.

The first was resolved in 1981 with a “consent decree”—a settlement in which neither party admits fault. The decree required the region to put women in 43 percent of positions within five years, to match the percentage in the civilian workforce. But many firefighters say it backfired: Qualified men were denied promotions, while unqualified women were thrust into positions that set them up for failure. By some accounts, hostility toward women increased.

So in the 1990s, Donnelly helped lead another class-action suit. A number of fixes resulted, including mandatory sexual harassment training and a special council that monitored the region’s response to harassment and discrimination claims. Complaints were resolved more effectively, and conditions improved.

But after the agreement expired in 2006, the process regressed. Today, civil rights training for most crews consists of an hourlong lecture that several employees say is inadequate and sometimes treated as a joke. Anyone who is assaulted is supposed to inform a supervisor or regional civil rights officer, who should then inform law enforcement. But that’s not always realistic in the field. “We’re pretty isolated,” says Johnston, the former firefighter. “Cellphones don’t work, we don’t have internet, and that’s not at a fire—that’s at government housing.” When a colleague first confided that she’d been raped, Johnston says, “I didn’t know how to help them or who to tell. There’s just no protocol.”

If a situation involves harassment or discrimination rather than outright assault, the process is even more convoluted. An employee (or her supervisor) must file a complaint with the USDA Civil Rights Office in Washington, where the law requires it to be processed, investigated and resolved within 180 days.

But that didn’t happen for Alicia Dabney. After she reported her experiences to the Civil Rights Office, she says, she waited. And waited.

A May 2015 report by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel shows that Dabney wasn’t waiting alone. Between 2010 and 2013, the Civil Rights Office failed to investigate roughly half of equal opportunity complaints on time. According to the USDA’s own data, the average number of days needed to investigate a complaint (not including resolving it or taking action) was 333 in 2010. It dropped to 212 days by 2014—an improvement, but for women forced to keep working with someone who belittles, harasses or undermines them, still a disturbingly long time. Worse, the Civil Rights Office itself had an “unusually high number of complaints filed against its own leadership,” the Office of Special Counsel found. It “has been seriously mismanaged, thereby compromising the civil rights of USDA employees.”

Some women get so frustrated they quit before the process is complete; others, uncertain of their rights or afraid of being blackballed, don’t file at all. And when transgressions are reported, the agency’s course of action varies. A Forest Service spokesperson told me sexual harassment charges can lead to the perpetrator being fired, but multiple employees say that men accused of harassment are sometimes just shifted to another forest or agency. (Privacy rules make this impossible to verify.)

In June 2015, the Pacific Southwest Region again took steps to improve its policy. Supervisors must now report sexual harassment to a superior and a civil rights officer within 24 hours, and a “sexual harassment intake inquiry coordinator” ensures that “assertive” safety measures—such as notifying police or separating employees—happen immediately. The region also recently distributed an anonymous survey to firefighters to learn more about patterns of discrimination. And there’s a sexual harassment hotline. “The Forest Service maintains a zero tolerance policy for harassment of any kind,” spokesman Michael Illenberg wrote in an email.

Yet as with the measures implemented after previous lawsuits, many women have lost faith that these steps will lead to lasting change. “There’s got to be a bigger solution than women filing complaints and them trying to pay us to settle and shut up,” says Dabney, who settled her individual complaints for an undisclosed amount in court in 2013 after she lost her job. “You file a complaint and nothing gets done. That’s unbelievable to me. On the 181st day, there needs to be a task force that says, ‘This is one day out of compliance. Let’s figure it out immediately.’”

​Jenay Naranjo was having trouble with her helmet. The 19-year-old from Española, New Mexico, was one of the 18 women taking part in the Women in Wildland Fire bootcamp. As they hauled shovels and pickaxes up the side of a scratchy hillside, Naranjo stepped out of line. “Ugh,” she said, fiddling with her too-big helmet. “This is, like, pissing me off.”

Kate Lacey tightened Naranjo’s chinstrap and tugged the yellow helmet. It stayed put. “There,” she said. “You got this.”

Naranjo fell back in line behind 27-year-old Ericka Alcaraz, a former whitewater guide with a dark braid who has wanted to be a firefighter since childhood. In front of them was 41-year-old Anella Russo, a volunteer structural firefighter and recently divorced mother determined to prove she could do something besides sit home and feel sorry for herself. “If I can raise seven kids by myself in the middle of nowhere, I can do this,” she told me. “Even if I trip over every root.”

Russo and the others spent the day hiking, digging fire line and doing pushups. They paused in the shade of a juniper to practice using signal mirrors and learn radio protocol. They peppered Lacey—who graduated from the first Women in Wildland Fire camp in 2012—with questions: How’d you make sure a crew picked you up? Am I doing this right? No one seemed intimidated by working in a male-dominated field. The future looked bright.

Indeed, most women firefighters don’t experience the kind of abuse that Dabney endured. Altogether, an average of just five individual Forest Service employees per year submitted sexual harassment complaints to the Civil Rights Office between 2011 and 2015, though, again, many cases aren’t reported. Still, given that 46,000 people work for the Forest Service, the numbers suggest most employees don’t feel harassed or abused. Among the dozens of female firefighters I talked to for this story, most had positive experiences.

Yet because so few women make a career of fighting wildfire, even those who love their jobs say they face more subtle discrimination. One told me she worked with men who ignored her orders but readily followed orders from other men. Jessica Hilfers, who was the first woman ever to work on her engine when she arrived in New Mexico’s Jemez District in 2011, says men literally took tools from her hands. And as a Colorado state fire employee bluntly put it: “There was a lot of sexism. You have to be able to trust the person you’re with, and I think a lot of guys just had it in their head that the girls were dead weight.”

Attitudes differ widely from crew to crew. Robert Moreno, captain of a California hotshot crew, says it boils down to who’s in charge and what kind of a culture is permitted. For his part, Moreno makes a point of nipping inappropriate behavior in the bud. “It starts out small,” he says. “But if people think they can get away with things, it tends to escalate.”

Other patterns, however, are harder to spot: captains who sign off on their male buddy’s training but are less likely to do the same for a woman, for example. One claimant in the latest class-action complaint, Candice Kutrosky, worked on nine hotshot crews in three Forest Service regions and was an assistant supervisor in eight. Her annual performance reviews consistently rated her leadership, safety skills and physical ability as excellent. Yet she was passed up for dozens of promotions in favor of less experienced men.

After submitting a Freedom of Information Act request, Kutrosky learned that at least two male supervisors had given negative references contradicting her written performance reviews. One wrote that she “demonstrates an extensive lack of neither (sic) physical ability nor a desire to improve.”

Given the already-challenging work conditions, this kind of treatment is enough to drive women away. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” says Brenda Dale, a Forest Service fire management officer. “So many things tip the scale for someone in wildland fire to decide to leave.”

Women in Fire Bootcamp
Bequi Livingston instructs the Women in Wildland Fire bootcamp near Albuquerque in 2014. Livingston started the boot camps in 2012 to give women a supportive place to break into the overwhelmingly male wildfire corps.   Photo: Kristen Honig/National Park Serv

Dale is now collecting data on women in fire for the Forest Service to help the agency track problems and adjust its response accordingly. But she’s already found major gaps: Because firefighters get lumped in with all Forest Service timber positions, the only way to determine who works in fire is to count those with permanent positions, who fall into a special early retirement category. Yet most firefighters—roughly 63 percent—are seasonal. That means Dale can’t get an accurate tally of the total number of women, which means it’s impossible to tell whether recruitment and retention efforts are working.

Still, permanent employee numbers are a start, and Dale’s project is just one of many aimed at making firefighting safer and more welcoming to women. In recent years, several Forest Service offices have started nonprofit daycare centers to help those with kids keep their jobs. One in Missoula, Montana, offers late evening and weekend care during fire emergencies. In the Intermountain Region—southern Idaho, Nevada, Utah and western Wyoming—employees of any gender can take a yearlong break from the field if they have serious family issues. They’re often given a 40-hour-a-week office job instead, which makes it easier to care for aging parents or sick kids. Sue Stewart, who’s behind that effort, says it stems from her own struggle to balance her firefighting career with raising two sons. “The Forest Service is interested in retaining great employees,” she says. “And the fact that we lose people who can’t find that balance is troublesome.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Aili Johnston started her own company, Willamette Public Health Consulting, and conducts four-hour sexual misconduct trainings for Forest Service employees. She teaches recruits about consensual sex and rape statistics, and familiarizes them with the byzantine Forest Service bureaucracy. She informs them of their responsibilities as federal employees and explains what resources are available if they’re harassed or assaulted. And though she has only reached about 1,000 employees so far, she hopes to expand by teaching Forest Service employees to offer the same trainings.

Then there are Bequi Livingston’s bootcamps.

On the surface, their impact seems minimal: Only a handful of the 129 women who have completed trainings in New Mexico and Arizona have gone on to work in fire. (Neither Livingston nor the agency have exact numbers.) Yet the model has spread to Utah and California, and by Livingston’s measure, it’s been a success. That’s because her purpose isn’t just to recruit qualified women—it’s to give women a place to share stories and build a support network.

At the bootcamp, each recruit is paired with an experienced female firefighter with whom she can stay in touch. Then, if she finds herself alone in the field, she’ll know at least one other person who can relate to her situation—someone she can call up and ask: “Is this normal? What should I do?”

Perhaps the most sweeping change, though, is that the men who have run wildfire for decades are stepping down, making room for more women in leadership positions. On the first morning of the bootcamp, as Russo, Naranjo and the others milled around the dirt parking lot, Sandia District Ranger Cid Morgan climbed into the bed of a pickup. The women gathered in a half-circle, looking up to her. The sun was just peeking over the hills.

“When I started in ’78, they still wouldn’t let ‘girls’ go on fires,” Morgan began. “The supervisor never said, ‘No, you can’t go out,’ but there was always something way more important for me to do in the office.”

Now, she added, with a smile, “I’m in charge.”

Filed To: Sexual Harassment, Nature, Environment, Syndicated, Women's

This story was originally published at High Country News.

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