Photo Credit: Talking about a test fire before a day of burning near Hayfork, CA.
In April 2016, I attended the FAC Net Annual Workshop in Jacksonville, Florida. It was there that I witnessed my first prescribed fire in person. During that experience, I realized that while I had learned a lot about fire adapted communities in my time with FAC Net, I was missing the first-hand knowledge of working with fire. I lacked the in-your-face, intimate fire experience that so many of my colleagues have—so I decided to sign up for the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) and dive in headfirst.
To attend a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) is to throw yourself into an intensive training, where learning from diverse perspectives, while stretching and challenging yourself, offers plenty of professional and personal growth opportunities. Evenings are full of presentations from experts and, of course, important networking time with other participants. To attend a TREX as a total fire-newbie is to get a crash course in fire behavior, safety, the incident command system and equipment, all while working 12-hour, physical days. It also includes packing your brain so full of information about topics from fire archaeology to social science to GIS that I walked away with no idea of how I could fit everything that I learned into one blog post—so I am not even going to try.
I do want to share what it feels like to participate in a women’s focused TREX as a woman who is relatively new to the world of fire as well, as to highlight some of the other participants’ insights.
WTREX In Action
To understand the structure of the event, I will give you the quick low-down of our schedule. We “broadcast burned” (i.e. used controlled burning on the landscape with a pre-identified prescription on a specified unit of land) the first four full days of the TREX, in Hayfork, CA. Due to weather, we had to shift strategies and focus on perfecting our pile-burning skills for another two days, near Redding, CA. The rest of the days were filled with orientation, travel, workshops, presentations and more. Each day, our field time was accompanied by evening presentations and group discussion. There was no shortage of inspiring stories, hard lessons learned and important, diverse knowledge sharing.
I wish I could introduce you one by one to our entire Incident Management Team (IMT) and the participants, sharing their personal stories and experiences. Having a women’s-focused TREX is so important and necessary for giving women the opportunity to work together, network, build each other up and mentor one another.
“It’s difficult to operate in an industry when you don’t see many role models who look like you. Being at WTREX renewed my inspiration to keep going – there are female role models in wildland fire, but we’re so spread out that we just have to bring them all together sometimes.”
– Lacey England, FEMO Trainee at WTREX
This training was not about widening the gap between men and women or calling out how one has a leg-up over the other. It was about emphasizing the diverse roles and perspectives in fire management. It was about embracing the notion that women learning together is powerful and having female mentors is important for our growth.
“This was a very transformative and validating experience that offered lessons and training in multiple layers. It brought women and men of diverse backgrounds together to learn from each other and accomplish common goals, just as fire crews do. It was a safe place to learn and a challenging experience that I will be ever grateful for.”
-Jessica Reeves, RXB3 Trainee at WTREX
It was acknowledged multiple times that bringing men into the gender conversation is important too. The men who attended WTREX made statements like “this was a life changing experience” and “I had no idea some of my fellow firefighters face some of the challenges that some of the women here have – and I am really glad I know now.” While I don’t have the space to share everyone’s individual experiences, you can hear a few of them through The Smokey Generation’s (an oral history project) video clips with participants from the WTREX and this radio piece featuring WTREX organizer Lenya Quinn-Davidson and our Incident Commander, Amanda Stamper.
“Being at WTREX has been a gift. As a male and foreign participant I found a really warm and inspiring environment that taught me the power of fire in ecological restoration, and meanwhile I discovered how to enhance my professional and personal development in a way I never imagined.”
-Jesus Morcillo, Trainee from Spain at WTREX
We not only had gender-related exchanges, but we also had cultural exchanges with participants from Portugal, Spain and Canada. We had landscape exchanges with people from flatter lands like Florida and the Great Plains, who were burning in steep, rough northern California terrain for the first time. And lastly, we had perspective exchanges as a result of the diverse types of professionals present, from hotshot crews who have only worked in suppression, to community-oriented folks like myself, to scientists and “ologists” interested in getting more fire on the landscapes that they study. The diverse perspectives only enhanced the positive nature of the event.
Uncovering The Roots
But, at the end of the whole experience—the training, the online s130/s190 courses, the pack test, and then the TREX itself—what I really walked away with, more than anything else, is the understanding that the history and culture of wildfire is deeply rooted. The culture of fire, the gender roles and differences in fire, the diversity of fire-related jobs, the understanding of fire science and behavior and the role of fire on the landscape are all deeply rooted phenomena. Yet while fire culture is deeply rooted, it is also evolving. People who work with wildfire aren’t just with federal fire management agencies; there are a breadth of organizations and agencies and individuals that all have a role to play in returning fire to the landscape and helping solve our complex wildfire problem. The roles of women are evolving and expanding, with leaders like Amanda Stamper, Jeanne Pinch-Tulley and Kelly Martin (all on our IMT) paving the way. And more people are starting to remember and call on the deep cultural and ecological ties that fire has in certain areas of our country, and drawing on traditional ecological knowledge in returning fire to the landscape.
I feel deeply honored that I was one of 45 participants chosen to participate in this first ever Women-in-Fire TREX. I encourage anyone who is interested in any of these events to keep an eye on the TREX calendar for upcoming events next year!
Author’s Note: I want to thank the Fire Learning Network, the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, the Watershed Research and Training Center and the Redding Field Office of BLM for supporting and hosting the WTREX. Additionally, thanks to the supportive and hardworking Incident Management Team for organizing and leading a superb event: Amanda Stamper, Phil Dye, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, Kelly Martin, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, Monique Hein, Tracey Stelman, Chris Ferner, Erin Banwell, and Dana Skelly. And lastly, thanks to all the participants who put their heart and soul into making the WTREX not only an amazing training experience but also an eye-opening adventure into your personal stories, making our shared learning that much deeper (oh….and thanks for making sure I knew how to use a drip torch, teaching me how to monitor weather and answering my countless questions).
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