Fire Woman: Fighting Fire with Fire

Texas Canyon Hotshots, Lowman, Idaho 2003. Photo © The Nature Conservancy
Texas Canyon Hotshots, Lowman, Idaho 2003. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

By Amanda Stamper, Fire Manager – The Nature Conservancy, Oregon

“All right, boys, we’re moving!” shouted one of the squad leaders, as our crew began hiking up to a wildfire on a steep and brushy slope in southern California on a hot August afternoon. It was the first time I felt alone amongst these 19 experienced and capable hotshot firefighters, my brothers.

I was the only woman on the crew that year. For long hours on tough ground for weeks at a time, I worked hard and hiked steep hills beneath a heavy pack, swinging a tool all day without complaint, dragging a drip torch and running a chainsaw every chance I was given. This was how I had learned to manage fire well and earn respect from the crew.

Amanda Stamper. Photo © Amanda Stamper
Amanda Stamper. Photo by Amanda Stamper

I started working on wildland fires seasonally as a college undergraduate back in 1999. My mother mostly worried about my physical safety, while my father concerned himself with the company I would be keeping. He designed, manufactured and delivered tents and other firefighting equipment to fire camps, where he had seen the men, faces darkened by ash and dirt—not the kind he wanted his daughter hanging around.

But I was undeterred. Hard work, performed in nature as it underwent transformation in the presence of fire—with relative ecological and cultural ignorance to the phenomenon, I was beholden. Learning about human relationships with fire and nature further engaged my interest, even as I encountered the loneliness of being a minority in this field. The more I learned about fire, the more I loved and pursued it.

When firefighting took hold in the West following the fires of 1910, it was men who performed the bulk of the work, thereby establishing the traditions of a fire culture that have endured to this day. Over the past 100 years, a brotherhood has formed, one many men identify with, doing work largely hailed as heroic. But in the broader historical context, fire has been managed ecologically and culturally rather than heroically. Over time it has been managed as much, if not more so, by women, who knew as gatherers how plants responded to fire applied at the right time in the right place, alongside men who used fire to move game and enhance habitat for hunting, not to mention countless other reasons about which I can only begin to speculate.

Efforts to increase the number of women in the wildland fire service over the years have largely failed. Reasons range from criminal to cultural, from sexual assault and harassment to resentment of policies intended to increase the number of women in fire, and many forms of subtle exclusion. While this is not unique to fire management, it appears to be more prevalent than in comparable fields such as law enforcement, speaking to a need for cultural transformation within the wildland fire community.

In the midst of this brotherhood are amazing women, but never enough in one place and time to form a comparable sisterhood. Many women form friendships and are able to validate otherwise isolated experiences through meaningful relationships. But they rarely find themselves in the majority, whether on a crew, squad, or even in the same vehicle, much less in charge of operations on a wildland fire incident management team. Sometimes they are lucky enough to find one another on a prescribed burn or wildfire. Given that these women are used to fighting alone for their place in the brotherhood, they are not necessarily accustomed to supporting, teaching, and mentoring each other, and they haven’t had the opportunity to learn to thrive together.

Recently, and particularly this past October, things have begun to change, marked by the first Women’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) in northern California near Hayfork and Redding. There, a group of roughly 90 percent female firefighters gathered to use controlled fire to restore lands in northern California. At this training, women mentored and trained one another, practiced communications and outreach about the benefits of prescribed fire, and experienced being able to work with other women training together, leading and conducting controlled burns.

Sonja Kaufman and Chesea MacKenzie. Photo by Lenya Quinn Davidson
Sonja Kaufman and Chesea MacKenzie. Photo by Lenya Quinn Davidson

Responses to the WTREX experience of working together to put good fire back on the landscape, being provided with a safe space within which to connect, receiving valuable training and information, as well as having the opportunity to practice skills in communication and outreach, was overwhelmingly positive. A second-year firefighter who attended the training was thinking of leaving the wildland fire profession now says she wants to stay, in part because she knows she now has a group of women to reach out to who support her. More experienced women who previously had encountered barriers to advancement were able to develop leadership skills at the training, thereby earning qualifications to lead and participate in wildland fire management activities. Men who participated reported leaving with their perspectives about women in wildland fire changed in favor of working to support and invest in them.

As a result of the training, four women were certified as fallers, and two as prescribed fire burn bosses, among other positions. Spirits were lifted, confidence was built, and a new model for how to invest in women in the wildland fire service was revealed.

Having these new voices in the profession will be all the more important as we rethink some of our practices. Over the last decade, it has become apparent that our nation needs to shift away from focusing efforts on suppressing and fighting fire, to proactively managing and cultivating fire to help make our lands and waters healthier, and our communities safer. Focusing on suppressing fire has made our forests more vulnerable to fire’s damage where it could otherwise experience fire’s benefits. For example, as our training was occurring in northern California, the nation’s most expensive fire in history was burning in central California. Last year was the costliest fire season on record for the Forest Service.

The challenge of getting in front of our nation’s fire problem calls for diverse talents and skills from all sides, including contributions from women and other underrepresented peoples from both within and outside what we currently know of as the wildland fire community.

Women’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, Hayfork, CA 2016. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

There is a lot of exciting work ahead to change and diversify the world of fire, and the formation of a sisterhood that the participants of WTREX cultivated is a part of it. The rich culture of fire needs change, just as our lands need controlled burns to be healthier.

All right, folks, we’re moving.

Amanda Stamper lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where she was born and raised and now manages The Nature Conservancy in Oregon’s fire program. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Oregon and a Masters in Natural Resources, Fire Ecology and Management from the University of Idaho, as well as certification as prescribed fire manager and burn boss. Her career has taken her from Puget Sound to the Gulf Coast, managing wildfires and conducting controlled burns. When not managing fires, she can be found enjoying music, running, hiking, skiing, doing yoga, and making and eating food, preferably over a fire.

Changing Planet

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Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.