The US Forest Service will be hosting the annual Women in Wildfire Training this fall in Arizona. This is a fast paced, six-day training where women from around the nation have an opportunity to participate in hands-on wildland fire training in a simulated fire assignment. Anyone is welcome to apply, no experience necessary. After the completion of the training, students become certified as FFT2 (Firefighter Type 2) and will be provided with information on how to apply in USAjobs if interested in working on a fire crew.
The camp will be held at the Pinedale Work Center on the Lakeside District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona. The dates for the training are Sept 23rd-25th and Sept 30th-Oct 2nd. Participants must attend both timeframes. Time and travel are paid, and equipment is provided. Apply by August 21, 2022.
If you have any questions, contact:
Naomi Corkish (na***********@us**.gov, 928-333-6247) or
Matt Sigg (ma**********@us**.gov, 316-617-9898).
When Sophia Huston started working as a hotshot — a specialized wildland firefighter with advanced technical training — she was 19 and didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She was physically fit and worked out regularly, but she wasn’t ready for preseason training, when the U.S. Forest Service, the agency she worked for, weeds out the unprepared with intense and physically demanding drills. “You’re going on hikes with full gear and chainsaws,” she said. “I weigh about 115 pounds and I’m carrying about upwards of 80 pounds of gear up a hill. I’m feeling the stress on my body and joints. I’m waking up in the middle of the night to eat food because I can’t get enough calories in.”
Shortly after the training began, Huston got what would be her last menstrual cycle of the fire season. She’s been working in fire for six years now and hasn’t gotten her period for the past three years, which she speculates is due to lack of sleep, poor quality of food, and the physical strain of the job. She doesn’t know what the long-term repercussions of working in the fire service are on her health and fertility. “I just know it’s not good for you,” she said. “It’s not very conducive to fertility and reproductive health.” New research suggests that Huston’s hunch is spot-on.
Smoke, heat, fire-suppressing chemicals, and the physical exertion required to put out and control fires all have effects on humans, but the body of published research on how firefighting affects health is astonishingly small. Studies have shown that being exposed to smoke in general is linked to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. But little is known about the cumulative impacts of fighting fires year after year, whether soot and other compounds can get absorbed through the skin and cause health problems, and how, exactly, smoke impacts the body in the long-term.
The ways in which fighting fire, and fire itself, affect women are even less understood. Women make up a tiny fraction of the national fire service, both in structural fire departments — the local departments that put out house fires — and the wildland crews that fight fires that occur in the wilderness and areas where wildland meets urban zones. They operate in a system that was built for and around men. And despite evidence that even short-term smoke exposure can affect pregnancy outcomes, female firefighters receive little to no information from their employers on how fire could impact fertility or pregnancy. “Nobody says, ‘smoke is bad, don’t stand there,’” Megan Saylors, a career wildland firefighter for a federal agency, told Grist. “It’s just such an accepted part of our work environment.”
A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health builds on the slim body of research on how work in the fire service specifically affects the reproductive health of women, and trans and nonbinary people who can get pregnant. By analyzing nearly 2,000 pregnancies in more than 1,000 female firefighters, the study found that self-reported miscarriage was 2.3 times more common among female firefighters than it was among female nurses, a cohort that is exposed to similar chemicals and work strains. Twenty-two percent of female firefighters miscarried, compared to 10 percent of female nurses.
The study found that, overall, volunteer firefighters had increased risk of miscarriage compared to career firefighters. And volunteer wildland firefighters had nearly three times the risk of miscarriage compared to career wildland firefighters. Less than 5 percent of career firefighters are women, and 84 percent of the female firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, which means a disproportionate percentage of the women who fight fires in the U.S. may be at increased risk of miscarriage.
Alesia Jung, a postdoctoral student at the University of Arizona and the lead author of the study, told Grist that she was surprised by the results of her research. She had initially hypothesized that career firefighters would present with the highest risk of miscarriage, because those women are exposed to fires more often than volunteers. “Generally the assumption is that career firefighters who generally respond to more fires in a year would have greater occupational exposures than volunteer firefighters who typically serve smaller communities and may have a smaller amount of fire responses,” she said. “So it was really interesting to see that volunteer firefighters appeared to have a greater risk of miscarriage, and this did vary by wildland firefighter status.”
Jung said that more research needs to be done on why firefighters face such high rates of miscarriage and what can be done to better protect them. Current and former firefighters agree.
Saylors, who has worked on crews based in Alaska, southern Nevada, southern Utah, California, and Oregon, says she’s never worked for a department that had policies or advisories in place to inform women about the risks of the job to their pregnancies. “I know women who were still working on a fire engine doing wildland stuff eight months pregnant. But then you have other people who, as soon as they find out they’re pregnant, they stop doing operational stuff,” she said. “Structural departments and wildland agencies struggle with, what do we do with those women? When do we no longer go put out the fire? When do we no longer go help with a prescribed fire during pregnancy?” Saylors said federal firefighting agencies should collect and conduct research on fertility and put policies in place to protect employees based on that research.
Zora Thomas, a seasonal wildand firefighter working for the Forest Service, told Grist she wasn’t surprised that wildland firefighters face an increased risk of miscarriage due to the requirements of the job. “Exposure to smoke is so ubiquitous and unavoidable, and wearing a respirator really isn’t practical or even possible due to the intensity and duration of our working days,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the obvious occupational hazards we face would have some impact on health and pregnancy, and I would expect that there are also impacts to male reproductive health.”
There’s some evidence that the fertility of male firefighters is also jeopardized by smoke and other hazards of the job. A 2019 study of Danish male firefighters found full-time firefighters were at greater risk of infertility than a comparison group of men in the military. Another study published in October that tracked male fertility in the general population following 10 days of unprecedented hazardous smoke in Oregon during the 2020 fire season found that semen quality greatly deteriorated following the onset of hazardous air quality. “Among male firefighters, reproductive issues are also a topic of concern,” Jung said. She hopes that future studies will help isolate the factors behind firefighters’ fertility problems and shift the status quo so women, and men, are better protected on the job.
Huston isn’t waiting around for the Forest Service to figure out how to better protect women. In December, she finished her sixth season as a hotshot in California. It’ll be her last. “I’m sad to leave but at the same time, I realized this year that I really care about my health, it’s one of my core values and almost everything we do seems to compromise my health,” she said. “Firefighting is a part of my life that I’m very thankful for, but I’m ready to get out.”
Funded by a grant from REI Co-op and the National Park Foundation
A National Park Foundation grant helped launch a pilot program working with conservation corps in California and Montana to create two women’s fire corps crews in Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks. Much of the funding is a result of a very large donation from the REI Co-op.
The first video was filmed near the beginning of the fire season and the second checks in on the crews later. To change the resolution of the video, click on the screen-like icon at lower-right.
In July, 2019 an all-female group of firefighters in New South Wales, Australia conducted a hazard reduction burn in Scheyville National Park.
We are a little late to the party, but here is an excerpt from a news release by the NSW Rural Fire Service at the time:
A hazard reduction burn in Scheyville National Park today is business as usual for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) firefighting staff. However, there is cause for celebration as the operation marks the first hazard reduction burn with an all-female crew.
NPWS acting Executive Director of Park Operations, Naomi Stephens congratulated NPWS for providing equal employment opportunities and a supportive working environment for women.
“Working for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service offers a vast range of opportunities for those looking for unique employment,” said Ms Stephens.
“Firefighting is just one of the many vital services provided by NPWS to protect local communities and wildlife.
“It is fantastic to see women thriving in a male-dominated field.
“While today may be the first time an all-female crew is running a hazard reduction burn, increasingly women have been playing a vital role in day to day NPWS firefighting.”
“Having an all-female managed burn highlights the growing number of women at NPWS taking on roles in the firefighting field.
“Although we have women in just about every different role when it comes to firefighting, we’ve never conducted an all-female burn before. It’s one thing to say that women are every bit as capable as men, but actions speak louder than words, so we decided to prove it. And it’s fantastic that women from the RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW are joining us on the burn today.
“Twenty percent of NPWS firefighters are female and women make up 23% of incident management specialists, which is significantly above the average in the fire and emergency sector.
Images from the front lines of Australia’s bushfires
Until two to three weeks ago most of the bushfire activity in Australia was concentrated in New South Wales, but in January firefighters further south in Victoria became increasingly busy.
Most of these photos (except as noted) were posted on the Twitter account of Chris Hardman, the Chief Fire Officer for Forest Fire Management Victoria.
One thing to keep in mind is that when wildland firefighters are actively working to contain a fire they usually do not have time to pull out a camera or smart phone and take pictures. So most of what you see from the front lines are from when they are taking a well-deserved break.
About the next three photos, Chief Hardman wrote:
Driving greater female participation in fire fighting and fire mgt, has paid off, our women are Sector Commanders, Div Coms, Crew Leaders, General FIre Fighters, Dozer Operators, Fallers, IMTs and Air Ops. They are an inspiration to others.
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges are supported by TNC, USFS, and DOI
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) holds 12-day training sessions to help women advance their formal qualifications in wildland fire management. The goal is to enhance their understanding of fire ecology, fire effects, communications, outreach, prescribed fire policy, and planning. At least three sessions have occurred, in Florida and California.
When the U.S. fire management system was conceived in the early 1900s, women’s roles in the workforce were much different than they are now. Even today, women constitute a relatively small proportion of the workforce, filling roughly 10 percent of wildland fire positions and only 7 in 100 leadership roles. In recent years, there has been an increased effort to recruit women into fire, yet social and cultural challenges remain. New recruits often find the dominant fire management system to be dismissive of female perspectives and strengths, even as its increasing complexity requires fresh approaches and insights.
WTREX is supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resilience and Fire Adapted Communities Together, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and agencies of the Department of the Interior.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula. Typos or errors, report them HERE.