May 26, 2022
Wildland firefighters embody grit. Their culture, at its best, upholds the values of duty, respect, and integrity. Not everybody can work 16-hour days of physical, mental, and environmental stress, expend 4,000-6,000 calories a day, and sleep in the woods, for 14 days at a time. At its worst, however, this culture's toughness and values are distorted. Perceptions of toughness become steeped in sexism and toxic masculinity.
“People kind of treated me differently just because I was a woman,” said a female wildland firefighter who I spoke to. She asked to remain anonymous. “There's this stigma that if a girl can't keep up, then she shouldn't be here, but they never say that about the guys.”
I was interviewing her about her experiences as a wildland firefighter. We discussed chainsaws, helicopters, and fire lines, and her evident enthusiasm for the work was contagious. But, after I asked her about significant challenges she faced on the job, she took a minute to think, and her expression changed. It became impossible to avoid discussing her position as a woman in a male-dominated workplace.
Women officially began working on wildland fire crews in the 1970s. Now, about 10% of permanent Forest Service wildland firefighting positions are held by women. In seasonal positions, women make up around 20-25% of the workforce. Still, there are only a handful of women on each crew, or less. Often, there is only one.
During fire season, the firefighter I spoke to grappled with the sexism and toxicity of some aspects of fire culture. She felt like she had to act like she wasn’t a woman. In firefighting culture, she explained, there is competitive drive to be the best and the strongest. Serious work ethic and fortitude is admirable. However, it is sexist when anyone assumes a woman cannot contribute those traits to a fire crew just because she is a woman.
She added: “You can't show any weakness, or they won’t really take you seriously.”
Wildland firefighter Sara Brown wrote about the non-woman persona female wildland firefighters put on in her essay “The Queen Bee, Tokenism, and Pushing Feminine Away,” where she reflects upon uncomfortable realities women face in fire. Brown, too, constructed a mask to wear to hide her femininity while working in fire. Women tend to be associated with femininity, and femininity tends to be associated with weakness. Female firefighters distance themselves from femininity and being perceived as weak by constructing an alternate, more masculine persona to fit in and feel safe in the community of their crews.
Of course, sometimes being seen as weak isn't the only problem a woman in the field needs to deal with. The firefighter I spoke to said some male crew members expressed romantic interest in her. She was looked at differently, in a way her male counterparts never had to worry about.
It is difficult to grapple with the extra stress of being a gender minority on top of the stress of working a dangerous and strenuous job. Since crews also camp out together during fire assignments, a firefighter's work environment becomes their constant environment. There is no respite. Part of the reason the firefighter I spoke to asked to remain anonymous was because she felt like she had to hide how she was feeling about sexism during the season.
Lindsey Rae Silvia is a Forest Service Fuels Technician and has over a decade of firefighting experience. She acknowledged the importance of recognizing this extra effort women face culturally in the firefighting world.
“As a woman, I've had a very positive experience in wildland fire, but I’ve also seen those that have not, and I think that being a woman in fire, whether or not that person shows femininity or not, I think that is a very complex arena a woman or someone who identifies as a woman needs to navigate.”
Silvia recounted female role models and mentors from her career in fire who were burnt out or frustrated with always needing to work harder. Some pushed through to leadership roles. Some did not.
The firefighter I spoke to said she got acclimated to being the only woman. She said it's funny to hear how “higher-ups” will talk to her and her crew after they finish an assignment.
“He’ll be like: ‘Good work boys! And girl.’ So, I liked to call it the ‘and girl’ when you're the only one.”
Training spaces exist where women don’t have to be the “and girl.” Some western Conservation Corps, such as the Montana Conservation Corps, hire all-women fire training crews. These crews work a similar season to wildland firefighters, from late Spring to early Fall, and learn the basics of chainsaw and tool operation necessary for a position on a fire crew. Crews maintain forests, cut trees, set prescribed burns, and go out on one or two fire assignments later in the season. By training and working in an all-female firefighting crew, the stress of being the “other” is removed. The focus is on the work and getting better at it.
The firefighter I spoke to feels empowered by the work she does, and she learned not to take anything personally. People have bad days, people slow down on a hike, people talk. No matter what, she said, she knows she can still do all the hard mental and physical work firefighting requires. But she did acknowledge that she needed to have thick skin.
“Fire is weird. There comes a point where, if you're fed up with all this macho dude bullshit, there's a part of you that wants to change it. But there are also points where you think, do I really want to stay in fire forever if I'm not happy, just because I feel like it has to be changed? There's only so much bullshit you can put up with.”
She also said she won’t be working in the field next fire season. She’ll be doing fire dispatch. She said she needed a break.