PBS reports on sexual harassment among firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service

In interviews, 34 women, current and former U.S. Forest Service employees, described a workplace that is hostile to female employees

(Originally published March 2, 2018)

The PBS program Newshour aired a story Thursday night reporting on interviews with dozens of U.S. Forest Service female employees, many of them firefighters. The women gave numerous examples of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped by fellow employees. The video below is a 12-minute version of the piece. The link above has more details.

Below is an excerpt from the PBS story:

In the private sector, employees can file discrimination complaints directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency tasked with investigating workplace discrimination. But federal employees, including those in the Forest Service, must first contact their agency’s EEO counselor, who starts an investigation and then makes a decision with the agency on how to handle the complaint. Federal employees dissatisfied with the results can appeal that decision to the EEOC or pursue a case in federal district court.

Many of the women interviewed described the reporting process as long, complicated, and never ending in a satisfying conclusion. Investigations can take years and stretch into hundreds of pages, especially if there is more than one allegation.

The EEOC said the average processing time for all complaints in fiscal year 2016 was 464 days, and that it’s exploring ways to shorten the process. The Forest Service’s new hotline, which is staffed by contractors specifically trained to handle sexual harassment, aims to more efficiently respond to these claims.


The Forest Service, for its part, said it updated its anti-harassment policy ahead of the [December 2016 congressional] hearing, in September 2016, and launched the national hotline the following November. Since the new anti-harassment policy was put in place, the agency said, it has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 of those cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases.

Shawna Legarza, National Fire Director for the USFS

In April, 2017 I talked with Shawna Legarza nine months after she began her job as the National Fire Director for the USFS. I asked if there was an area that she felt strongly about, enough that she would give it special attention, and she said, “Absolutely! I’m trying to make some changes in the workplace environment, I feel very strongly about that. I want to see the agency have a workforce that is completely inclusive of each other … and that people’s voices can be heard, understood, listened to and incorporated into all that we do, and that there is no discrimination of any kind. I am very passionate about that and I want to try to make a difference in the workplace environment for all wildland firefighters, for the Forest Service and other agencies.”

“I talk about,” she said, “having a workforce where everybody comes to work, they’re proud to be there, and included in whatever area they are working in, their voices are heard, they are listened to — free of discrimination, free of bias — it’s just a way of being. We’ve got some new initiatives that we are trying to roll out to the workforce.

Ms. Legarza, we were told, was not available for comment today because government offices in the District of Columbia were closed due to weather. The statement below was issued by Dan Jiron, the Department of Agriculture’s Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment:

The stories the Forest Service employees shared during the PBS NewsHour piece are important to hear, difficult and heart-wrenching as they may be.  Stories like these, which have come to light over the past few years, have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today.  While we have taken significant actions over the past several years to address sexual harassment in the Forest Service, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. These are critical issues that the Forest Service must continue to take on to increase our efforts to protect our fellow employees so they know they can speak up and speak out, without any fear of retaliation or reprisal. Victims must know that there will be accountability for persons who engage in sexual harassment and reprisal.  We are committed to our duty to create a workplace that is respectful, rewarding, and above all, a safe place for all employees.

Congressional hearings

This is not the first time allegations of sexual harassment within the federal firefighting agencies have surfaced. Below are examples between 2014 and 2016, but others regarding the USFS go back much further, to 1972. Some of the recent issues include the National Park Service as well as the USFS.

    • In September 2014 seven female wildland firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service filed a complaint against the Department of Agriculture alleging that they suffered job discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse at the hands of male co-workers and that top agency officials failed to stop it.
    • In March, 2016 the Huffington Post in a lengthy article by Kathryn Joyce described what appeared to be a stunning culture of serious sexual harassment being virtually tolerated in some locations within the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
    • September 22, 2016 the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from two employees about harassment in the NPS and the USFS. Kelly Martin, Fire Management Officer at Yosemite National Park, described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.” She also described sexual harassment in a previous job when she worked for the USFS.
    • Members of that same House Committee and other Senators and Congresspersons, a total of 13, signed a letter on November 10, 2016 requesting that Phyllis K. Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, conduct an audit of the USFS to find out if progress has been made after allegations surfaced in 2014 of “sexual misconduct and retaliation in Region 5 [California] of the FS”.
    • On December 1, 2016 the committee held another hearing “to address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within the U.S. Forest Service”, and, “to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s management of its Office of Civil Rights and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.” One of the witnesses to testify was Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Technician on the Eldorado National Forest at El Dorado, California. She told a horrifying story of being harassed for years by her supervisor and then being victimized again with reprisals.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite

Sexual harassment Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park Fire Management Officer
Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park Fire Management Officer, at the hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, September 22, 2016. Screen grab from the committee’s video.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last decade she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She was one of the witnesses who testified at the September 22, 2016 Congressional hearing. We asked her today about her reaction to the March 1 PBS Newshour story:

Most women I have talked to fear coming forward for this very reason [retribution].  People will not believe them. It’s time we start believing them! Most women I know who have been through sexual harassment and hostile working conditions want the toxic behaviors to stop and by coming forward they hope by breaking the silence, working conditions in the federal wildland fire services will be better for their sisters and brothers coming up through the ranks.

NPS as a whole has made significant strides in addressing the need to hold perpetrators accountable. NPS Fire on the other hand only has 3 female Fire Management Officers nationwide. There is a very high drop out rate of women rising through the ranks.

Not just women should be asking this question but our men in leadership positions should be concerned by asking this very same question. Identify the reasons why women drop out and commit to a plan of progressive gender equality in wildland fire. Period!

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

5 thoughts on “PBS reports on sexual harassment among firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service”

  1. Not terribly surprising given the lack of education/talent within all the ranks at the USFS for many years now – but nonetheless very disturbing to watch. I wish those courageous women nothing but the best, and for FAR better working conditions in the future.

  2. “Identify the reasons why women drop out and commit to a plan of progressive gender equality in wildland fire. Period!”
    What does this mean… “progressive gender equality in wildland fire”?
    Just pondering past the “Period!” which strongly implies ‘don’t ponder anything that was just asserted.’ The PBS presentation was very emotional, so had to dab the tears and listen hard to what was being said. The issue presented seemed to be about the need for a safe and dignified working environment for women, which everyone enthusiastically agrees is a always a good thing, all the time, everywhere. Logically, if some fellow staff persons are discovered after hiring to be incapable of being civilized and self-controlled humane to women on the job then there are also certainly cases of abuses against men, even less talked about. That’s of course terrible wrongs, horrible for morale and ultimately productivity. Bad management by not identifying the bad apples and promptly removing them. Even just one ‘predator’ can ruin a work place for tens, even hundreds of people as those types are almost always multiple offenders. That’s a sort of bad management that doesn’t support and protect good employees, which plagues all sorts of industries… many which eventually fail because, if good people can’t change the situation after a good-faith effort, then good people quit. Everyone, male and female, wants to do a good job, not be stalked and abused at work, yes?

    But is PBS suggesting something else rather unrelated to the practical ground logistical problems of wildland fire-fighting productivity… a 50-50 gender representation, er… like the Norway Parliament? That’s work consisting of a lot of reading, speech-writing, talking and committee meetings, not hiking up steep trails lugging heavy gear – just to get to the job. If PBS is suggesting that wildland fire needs 50-50% women to men in staffing, then why?
    Most women aren’t physically up to wildland fire work, simply extrapolating logically from the fact that most today men aren’t physically up to it, either. Futher, of the two smaller groups of men and of women that are physically able, many never sign up because they simply aren’t interested in that kind of work. That’s life – everyone has their interests and natural talents. People pick jobs because they’ love the work’. They’ll go farther and do more because they have some unexplainable affinity for it. Good! If everyone did the same thing, the world wouldn’t function. But most simply would rather do something else for work – free choice. It’s not a good thing to try to force people into positions they don’t want to be in just to make some arbitrary percentage. Unlike the daily grind of the Norwegian Parliament schedule, wildland firefighting is physically dangerous. Those people will get hurt, do poorly and after a while resent being cajoled into jobs they don’t like, aren’t good at or want to do. This of course affects then the overall effectiveness of the outcome of the specific work.

    So, the male to female ratio in fire-fighting is always going to trend to males, with a high turn-over for many positions. Proof – wildland fire work is always searching for new recruits to replace those who’ve tried it and dropped out or done it a while and had enough of it and want something more steady in pay and less fatiguing.
    Just an outsider’s observation – management is always key in everything. Good management figures out how to best manage the workload, the budget, and the people who have to do it. As General George Patton observed, 90% of the staff one inherits can be worked with – some need a little guidance, some need a bit of extra training to excel where they are, some are actually in the wrong jobs and become successes if moved to other positions that they are good at. All employees strive to be successes and want to take pride in their contributions. Good management gets to know the people who do the jobs. But Patton noted that in his extensive experience over decades of his life leading troops, he found that about 10% have to be cut – a mix of incompetent, disruptive, and some completely undermining of everyone else’s work. Getting rid of a few who create issues for the majority who are diligently doing their jobs makes for a safe and high-achieving team. One will notice that poor managers act in the complete opposite of what Patton said. They will complain about their staffs not being good enough and dump good people at the first mistake instead of working with them. They will keep on troublemakers that undermine the rest.
    So good management practices can be learned by many people, but are not often taught. Brilliant managers seem to be able to create miracles with what appears to be not much, but they consistently have great love and respect for the people working under them – protecting them from all sorts of abuse and challenging them both male and female, to excellence.

    1. W. Yav – all good comments worthy of debate, here is the beauty in our ability to debate deep issues plaguing the Wildland Fire Services: to openly debate pros and cons in an effort to become better than who we are today. Become public with who you are and lets debate issues we in the Wildland Fire Community feel are worthy of debate. Lets highlight the great achievements women and men have made collectively as a team as well. Not all is bad – there is much good to celebrate too. Most of my outstanding mentors and sponsors have been men and I am deeply grateful for their support.

      Progressive gender equality/parity in wildland fire: This will take creative individuals willing to examine hiring and recruitment successes and failures for attracting top talented women, minorities and men. Bring in progressive ideas to change what IS NOT working and enhance what IS working. How do people feel about our current hiring practices? Fair? Equitable? Are you able to strive towards 30% women / 70% men on your crew? Reasonable parity to start with?

      There is not much to ponder the laudable goal of our agencies to increase the ratio of women to men in our fire organizations. Progressive retention ideas – why are women leaving wildland fire? Progressive training and experience – are women held back from training courses, training assignments, complex fire assignments? Are women given opportunities to build street cred in operations similar to men? Complex questions, yes, but reasonable to debate.

      I’ve seen some rock star firefighting women run circles around me and I am so impressed with their physical abilities. If women can win Olympic Gold in Hockey, certainly we can recruit physically fit, adventuresome women wanting to make fire a career if we just give them a chance and support each other to be our very best. I want to reach out to women and coach them through the challenges of this career decision, which can be daunting, but certainly navigated. What are obstacles that hold women back? What are the opportunities which help women succeed? Some decide to go on to other work which is fine, men will too.

      Parity? 50%? not likely. I think California tried something like this years ago, 40 something odd percent women? Probably not likely, but not unreasonable either. I don’t think you will hear too many people proclaim we should have a 50/50 split of women to men. Lets focus on the quality and not put a number that we must reach X by X date; Lets try for 40%, 20%; efforts to get us moving in a positive direction of increasing gender parity in all jobs.

      We need women as firefighters, Hotshot Superintendents, Captains, Battalion Chiefs, Division Chiefs, Fire Management Officers, Fire Chiefs, Operation Section Chiefs and Incident Commanders – in other words in operations and command positions. It takes a lifetime to achieve the upper ranks and these achievements remain elusive to women even today.

      If women are dropping out within the first say 7 to 10 years because of harassment, bullying, hazing and dismissed as a credible firefighter – where do opportunities exist to change our mindset and toss out these toxic behaviors? Are we ready? Strive to be that outstanding high performance, diverse fire crew! We need you now and our future fire managers need you – they deserve your very best as a leader in fire.

      How does all this align with sexual harassment and hostile work environments? We are seeing this play out in real time with the #MeToo movement. When respectable, social norms begin to breakdown, we break our silence to demand the one fundamental right afforded all of us – human dignity.

  3. Hey, I had a question since this has been making the rounds and we are discussing hiring numbers: 4 years ago, I was in Ogden during R-4 firefighter hiring at the regional office. I was speaking to someone in the Civil Rights program and at the time, she said that anyone who does not self-certify in their application process, as well as anyone who doesn’t enter demographic information in their online employee page, is defaulted to a white male. She showed me actually. To recap, in instances where you are given the option to identify your race and gender, for the sake of tracking, if you chose not to and clicked “other” or “decline to answer” or whatever the option is, the system counted you as a white male. She said something about forests sending their demographic data to NFC or something similar and that they did not have an extra box in their tracking spreadhseet to count the number of non-disclosures against others. Again, this was 2013 but I was curious if anyone knew if it changed? I know some non-white/non-males who usually do not answer the optional demographics questions and the Civil Rights person said that previously, they did have a seperate box in their spreadsheets for non self-certifying and it was close to 20% but that they were required to use the newer sheet. I am a firefighter and I can say confidently we have a lot less women than men, no doubt there, but since people are throwing around stats, I was curious if the tracking process was still the same or where the numbers in the articles came from?

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