On a sunny morning in early August, a group of seven women dressed in hard hats and yellow long-sleeve shirts marched single file, carrying chainsaws, axes and other hand tools toward a thicket of pine trees.
In the background loomed Yosemite National Park’s characteristic granite monoliths.
When they arrived, their supervisors gave them their assignment for the day: building burn piles on the floor of Yosemite Valley.
Guadalupe Ruiz put on her safety goggles and gloves. With her hair pulled back in two long braids, she began to hack away at a towering pile with a chainsaw, while other crew members dragged logs and branches full of green pine needles across the forest floor to form other piles, which will be set on fire later in the season when the weather is less fire-prone.
This type of maintenance is an essential component of fire management, allowing fuels to be burned in a controlled manner rather than becoming part of a larger, more destructive fire later on.
But though the maintenance is routine, this crew who carried it out is uncommon: They were all women. The Yosemite Women’s Fire Internship is part of a new pilot program launched last year to bring more women into wildland firefighting in the National Park Service (NPS).
As wildfires worsen due to climate change and states like California deal with a growing shortage of firefighters, the need to diversify the workforce is as much about practicality as it is about equity.
Only about 12 percent of wildland firefighters are women, and even less ascend to leadership positions, with women making up less than 5 percent of NPS wildland fire leadership at the park level.
Working in wildland firefighting also opens up opportunities in other fields related to natural resource management, said Robin Verble, a researcher at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
“It’s one of the most open gates into natural resource professions out there in terms of job availability,” she said.
“If women are to get into natural resources and in ecology and in those kinds of fields and want to get into the federal system, it’s making sure that gate is up.”
Those other types of jobs, which could range from forest or fire ecology to wildlife management, are also exciting to Ruiz, who has a degree in wildlife biology. And the Yosemite training aims to expose her and the rest of the crew to other kinds of jobs in the park.
While the crew worked on the burn piles, a woman park biologist was sent to talk to them about her job and to discuss recent bear activity in the area. Ruiz peppered her with questions, excited to learn more about her work.
Still she and other corps members expressed a sense of duty when it came to fighting fires. “I want to help out because there is this great need of people and I can do it. My body is able to do this work,” she said.
But like other fields dominated by men, societal bias and discrimination have made it difficult to grow and retain the number of women like Ruiz in the field.
The 10-week Yosemite program — plus all-women crews in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and a newly launched program in Alaska’s national parks — is aiming to provide a smoother entry for women, giving them the opportunity to become certified for federal wildland firefighting in a more welcoming environment.
The Yosemite Women’s Fire Internship pulls from a pool of existing members of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), a paid conservation work development program for residents ages 18 to 25.
Unlike the Civilian Conservation Corps — a program started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt aimed at putting men to work in the nation’s parks and forests — the California version has been co-ed since its launch in 1976. However, women make up only 25 percent of corps members.
Depending on which of the 24 centers they are located at, the work CCC members do ranges from apprenticeships in conservation, habitat restoration and energy to emergency management assistance in fires, floods and mudslides.
Part of the CCC’s mandate is to recruit from low-income or otherwise marginalized populations, providing a pathway into good jobs. The corps requires that participants who don’t have a high school diploma participate in the education program that allows members to take classes alongside their corps work to earn one.
Tricia “TeeTee” Andrews, who grew up in Compton, a city in southern Los Angeles, said the program has changed her life.
She first heard about the CCC a few years ago through her little brother. Andrews, who dropped out of high school nearly a decade ago, was working at Walmart.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this is a program. You need money. Sign up,’” she said. “I just wanted my diploma. That’s what really got me.”
This June, she graduated from a CCC high school. She’s also gotten her driver’s license and a CDL, which allows her to drive larger vehicles like school buses or semi-trucks.
“Me joining the C’s really prompted me to get my life together,” she said.
Before she came to Yosemite, she was working in the CCC’s energy program, where she helped retrofit buildings with energy-efficient light bulbs and was trained in solar installations. Most of the other corps members at her center were men.
“I’m small, 4’10”, and then surrounded by dudes who are like 5’10”. And I’m just looking up to them trying to give them directions. … It can be very intimidating,” she said.
In the Yosemite crew, though, she and others expressed feeling supported and comfortable asking questions and learning in an environment that felt less competitive than at their centers, where their gender often puts them in the minority. Having two women lead the crew inspired Andrews.
“I think it’s tough now, but I bet it was even tougher back then,” she said of her supervisors. “Those are two women that I look up to, and I’m like, ‘Well, I can actually relate to you. You know things that I’m going through, things that the whole crew is going through, [like] how do we overcome these obstacles? How do we not let our gender get in the way of what we can accomplish?’”
While there is still a ways to go in combatting discrimination, Tami Skaggs — one of the crew supervisors, who has been working in fire since the 1990s — said she has noticed a positive change among men on field crews over the years.
“Especially with this younger generation, they’re more respectful to the women and the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Still, Andrews would like there to be more racial diversity; while the crew was fairly representative, she was the only Black participant in the Yosemite pilot program.
“I’m probably the only one out here that is rocking natural hair,” she said with a grin.
She continued: “It’s important, right? Because we can do it,” she said. “It just needs to be more open. You need to feel more accepted. We deserve to be in this line of work.”
Mirna Camey, another corpsmember, moved from Guatemala five years ago as an asylee. Before applying for the CCC and the Yosemite Women’s Fire Internship, she was working as a cook at a Mexican restaurant and at a supermarket. Now she too is earning her high school diploma — she completed high school in Guatemala, but the requirements didn’t transfer over.
Camey has fallen in love with wildland firefighting and working outdoors. She first became interested in fighting fires in 2020, when California experienced a record fire season. “When I see something that’s hard, I want to do it, I want to have that experience.” Camey said.
The park service’s strategic plan aims to double the amount of women fighting wildfires in the parks by 2024 through training and mentorship.
The program gives them a head start.
Participants have the opportunity to earn a red card, which provides them with the credential they need for entry-level firefighting with federal agencies.
By completing the training, they will have all the basic training requirements fulfilled and learn important skills like how to use a chainsaw and hand tools, how to work on a crew, and how to read the weather and topography before heading out into the field.
Finally, they have to complete a pack test, which requires carrying 45 pounds for three miles in 45 minutes or less.
But despite these competencies, they will likely still face barriers. Verble of Missouri S&T in June published a survey of more than 700 wildland firefighters detailing difficulties they had with the industry, from low pay to mental health issues. Access to affordable child care was overwhelmingly cited by women as a barrier to the job.
“When they’re wildland firefighters, women are less likely [than men] to be married, they’re less likely to have affordable child care, they’re less likely to have children,” Verble said. “Wildland fire is not compatible with being a primary caretaker for a kid, which still disproportionately falls to women.”
Women were also more likely to report workplace violence then men, though reports of sexual assualt did not vary between genders.
For years the U.S. Forest Service, another federal agency that has firefighting crews, has come under scrutiny for pervasive sexual harassment and the way it handles sexual misconduct in the agency.
In December 2016, a House committee held a hearing to address the ongoing sexual harassment and gender discrimination after media outlets including The Washington Post and PBS Newshour reported on dozens of firefighters who described a workplace hostile to women.
Verble said that in the qualitative data, which she and her co-authors have yet to release, comments made by women about their workplace get “grim real fast.”
Reports of sexual assault in crew bunk housing, or just working in an exclusionary environment, led some women to feel demoralized. One woman said that when she spoke up she was called “a bitch.”
“After reading 3,800 comments or so, I’m left a lot more perplexed. … I think to some extent, there needs to be a real hard look at the leadership in wildland fire,” Verble said.
“Because there’s obviously some structural level thing that’s allowing some of these cultural and attitudinal things to remain in place.”
For these reasons, Verble does fear that these all-women programs might not prepare participants for the realities of the field.
“In some ways, I worry about those programs being a disservice, because they give you the skill set, but they don’t give you the resilience and the feeling of this really hegemonic culture,” she said.
“They kind of let you have this rosy view of what it’s going to be like and maybe that’s good. Maybe that inspires you and helps build some confidence in a way that I didn’t get to do.”
Bequi Livingston, one of the first women ever recruited to join the elite Smokey Bear hotshot crew back in the 1980s and an advocate for getting more women into the service, said the pilot program could help combat some of the bias that women have faced by ensuring they have the skills the need before they join a crew.
In the late 1970s, when the Forest Service was sued for unfair hiring practices, it was required to fill at least 43 percent of jobs with women. The requirement has expired, but there is still a perception that agencies are only hiring women because of their gender, fueling the idea that women don’t belong in the field. In a study published in 2020 on recruitment and hiring for the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest, 75 percent of women said they felt out of place specifically because of their gender.
“The intention was good … but the delivery sucked,” Livingston said. “But that was a huge turning point. … That’s how I got my permanent employment.”
The first year she was offered a job through the decree, though, she turned it down. “I actually made a statement that I refuse to be a token woman, that I only want to be hired for a job based on my qualifications in knowing that I was the top candidate.”
Livingston is a proponent of women getting more opportunities to join the firefighting workforce. She experienced discrimination at her first job, when her manager, who assumed she was a man based on her name, tried to push her into office work when she showed up for her first day of firefighting.
It’s why she helped start a training program with the Forest Service in 2012 called the Women in Wildland Fire Bootcamp. She felt like these early hiring sprees weren’t prioritizing preparing women for the work. Her training, like the program in Yosemite, aimed to fill that gap in the hiring process.
“It was really to set people up for success and absolutely ensure that they were fully prepared and knew exactly what they were getting into,” she said.
After working in the field all morning, the women walked back to the emergency services complex where they sat around a picnic table eating packed lunches. They recounted some of the experiences they already faced working in the men-dominated CCC.
Corps member Marlene Chavez said the men back at her center questioned whether she’d receive different or less rigorous training with an all-women crew. (It is the same training men receive.) She was worried that they might judge her.
“I’m kind of nervous to go back,” she said. “I just hope that I get on a fire crew and that they don’t bug me.”
Many program participants expressed that they felt the need to constantly prove themselves and put in extra effort to be respected. They seemed aware of the perils of being underrepresented in the field, but also empowered to face the challenges ahead.
About half of them raised their hands when asked if they wanted to work in wildland firefighting after the program, excited by the opportunities to combat blazes across the West and contribute to conservation-minded work.
Cheyenne Haffner, a gregarious woman who, at 18, was the youngest of the group, recounted how she initially heard about the training program through TikTok.
“I saw this video and it was literally this girl posted up in the middle of a forest building a trail,” she said.
“She literally just takes her phone and she’s like, this is what I do and it’s literally just trees everywhere. She’s covered head-to-toe in mud, dirt and sweat.”
Haffner, who grew up in Stockton, a small city in the agricultural heart of the state, thought to herself: “I want to get paid to go work in a forest. I don’t care what I’m doing. But I want to go do work in a forest.”
Once she joined the CCC, she ended up working at a supply camp for a wildfire in New Mexico. It was there she found out she had been accepted into the Yosemite program.
At the time, she was worried about not being strong enough, so she borrowed the pack of a woman firefighter and used it to carry around weight in her spare time at the work site.
Toward the end of their training, the corps members joined a Helitack crew — firefighters that travel by helicopter — to spend a few days monitoring the Red Fire, a conflagration sparked by a lightning strike in the southern part of the park.
For days they camped a few miles from the fireline, making sure it didn’t grow too large or get out of control. Fire management in the parks sometimes means allowing burns to clear out dead trees and other forest fuels naturally.
For Haffner, the experience added a new dimension to wildland firefighting. “It was really great being able to sit out on the fire line and hear the sounds of the trees torching, to hear the crackling of the fire,” she said.
“I feel like I’m actually more prepared to do the firefighting because I was able to have a calm opportunity to watch a fire burn and learned all the science stuff behind it.”
Now her plans are to apply for firefighting positions at Yosemite when the hiring process opens in October. If that doesn’t work out she said she’s happy to spend a few more years growing at the CCC and perhaps exploring other programs.
At 18, she still feels like she has a lot of life skills to learn, she said.
Still, when asked if firefighting is in her future, she responded: “It’ll definitely be my career for life.”
This article was originally published by The 19th.