Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson
I’ll be honest: this month’s fire science blog is not very scientific. It’s half training announcement, half social commentary. But it has an essence of science to it—not because of the literature that exists on the topic, but because of what isn’t there.
At the end of October, I’m hosting a prescribed fire training exchange (TREX) here in northwestern California. This will be the fourth annual TREX hosted by the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, but this year will be special—the event will have a focus on women in fire, and it will work to recognize and reinforce the importance of female perspective and leadership in fire management.
In planning the training exchange, which we’re calling the “WTREX,” we assembled a high-powered team of leaders to craft a shared vision around this inherently complex and sensitive topic. Most of us are women, but we come from very different backgrounds. There are seasoned wildland fire professionals—like Jeanne Pinchatulley, one of only two female Type 1 incident commanders in the country, and Amanda Stamper, The Nature Conservancy in Oregon’s fire manager—but we also have municipal fire staff, fire ecologists, extension personnel, media and outreach specialists, and others. So to me, the most interesting thing in the planning process has hardly been the event itself—rather, it’s been the conversations that our group has been having as we’ve worked to articulate the mission and goals of the WTREX. It took many months of thought and rich discussion to get to yesterday’s public announcement of the event.
As I lay awake last week thinking about my Tuesday blog post and what science topic I should delve into this month, I naturally found myself thinking about women in fire. I wondered about the research that’s been done on this topic, and how it relates to what we’re trying to do here in late October. What are the challenges that women face in fire? Is it an issue of recruitment and numbers, or is it something more substantive—more cultural?
Perhaps tellingly, there hasn’t been much research on this topic. Sarah McCaffrey pointed me toward some work in Australia, where Christine Eriksen and others have looked at rural bushfire management in the context of gender. They’ve found key differences in the way men and women perceive, prepare for, and respond to bushfires—differences that often leave women ill-prepared for fire or reliant on men for protection. Though this is a different social and political setting than we’re immersed in here, there was one recurring theme in Eriksen’s work that resonated with the conversations I’ve been having: the notion that fire management is “men’s business,” even when women are involved. That same underlying attitude has recently been called out here in the U.S. An article in High Country News focused on the harassment and sexism that is still rampant in the world of wildland firefighting, and that story mostly highlighted the overt abuse that’s taking place—not the more subtle forms of misogyny that are even more widespread but harder to pinpoint and disrupt.
In approaching the WTREX, our team is interested in creating a space where women and men can discuss and understand these issues, and work together to build a more inclusive, supportive culture in fire. We feel that today’s fire problems are so complex that we need to elevate diversity in intellect, talent and perspective in order to solve them, and that approach will necessarily involve leadership from women.
The WTREX could not be more timely: just in the last few days, Shawna Legarza was appointed the new national director of fire and aviation management for the USDA Forest Service, and another woman, Patty Grantham, will take her place as the director of fire and aviation for the Pacific Southwest Region. On top of that, we’re in an election year with the first female presidential candidate of a major political party. The time is ripe to bring 40 fire practitioners together in northern California to restore fire to the landscape, build new networks and partnerships, and work toward a more equitable, inclusive, and effective fire management culture. (And I think we should probably incorporate some research, too—there’s clearly a need!)
To learn more about WTREX or to apply, visit http://www.norcalrxfirecouncil.org/wtrex-2016.html. Contact Lenya at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions.
Eriksen, C., Gill, N. and Head, L., 2010. The gendered dimensions of bushfire in changing rural landscapes in Australia. Journal of Rural Studies, 26(4), pp.332-342. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christine_Eriksen/publication/248533751_The_gendered_dimensions_of_bushfire_in_changing_rural_landscapes_in_Australia/links/00463527c34833f2a0000000.pdf
Eriksen, C., 2014. Gendered risk engagement: challenging the embedded vulnerability, social norms and power relations in conventional Australian bushfire education. Geographical Research, 52(1), pp.23-33. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christine_Eriksen/publication/258918547_Gendered_Risk_Engagement_Challenging_the_Embedded_Vulnerability_Social_Norms_and_Power_Relations_in_Conventional_Australian_Bushfire_Education/links/004635296682ce0273000000.pdf
Langlois, K. May 30, 2016. Trial by Fire: women in the male-dominated world of wildland firefighting still face harassment, abuse and sexism. High Country News. https://www.hcn.org/issues/48.9/trial-by-fire
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