New wildfire-fighting program for girls aims to bring more gender diversity to the profession

Keeping wildfires at bay is an important and demanding job. But most wildfire-fighters are men. An inaugural program through the Texas A&M Forest Service is meant to change that.

By Jill AmentOctober 13, 2021 10:12 am, , ,

On a clear, breezy day a group of girls in their early and late teens lined up in front of a couple of fire trucks tucked away in the piney woodlands of Smithville, Texas. They were learning how to use low-powered fire hoses – and were getting drenched in the process.

These girls are part of the inaugural class of the Texas A&M Forest Service’s “Sisters in Fire” program. It’s run solely by women wildland firefighters, and is open only to teen girls interested in the field.

“This has been a great experience working with some people my age,” said 16-year-old Chessalee Tanner. “I’ll probably do it again next year.”

Tanner has been learning how to start a chainsaw, and what it’s like to operate a bulldozer.

Chris Davis for Texas Standard

Trainees learning how to operate a chainsaw.

Women represent little more than 7% of all U.S. firefighters. That number is a bit higher when it comes wildfire-fighters, but not by much: about 12% of positions with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service focused on wildland firefighting are occupied by women. Texas A&M Forest Service says 10% of its wildland firefighters are women.

Nicole Lang argues all those numbers are too low. She’s a regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Houston office.

“It’s an amazing job,” Lang said. “I love it and a lot of these girls absolutely love their jobs, and we just want to let it be known to other women.”

She suspects one of the reasons why there are so few women in her field is that they just don’t think it’s a career open to them.

“We’re really underrepresented,” Lang said. “And we really just want to get that out there to young girls that this is a career opportunity for them.”

That’s why she created “Sisters in Fire.” And she got 22 other women who work in wildland firefighting in Texas to be instructors for its inaugural event. About 30 teens joined them.

“They’re having a blast,” Lang said. “I can hear them hooting and hollering, yelling, ‘Go Team!’ They’re having an amazing time and so are we. It’s amazing.”

A wildland firefighter trainer demonstrating a controlled burn.

There was lots of girl power on display that day. As an instructor helped her start a chainsaw, 13-year-old Mayelynne Baccus sported a T-shirt with a picture of Tootsie Tomanetz, the legendary female pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas. Baccus is not sure if wildland firefighting is something she wants to do for a career, but she has enjoyed having an opportunity to learn more about it.

“This is interesting,” Baccus said. “I can see why people would like to choose this as a career path … because it’s fun. It’s scary, but fun.”

When asked if she thinks these activities are exclusive for boys, she immediately shook her head no.

“I think everybody can do whatever they want,” Baccus said. “There shouldn’t be any gender-defining roles.”

After a day full of hands-on learning, the program instructors demonstrated a controlled burn. It’s kind of like fighting fire with fire. During dry spells or in areas that are wildfire prone, wildland firefighters go out every so often and burn off dead brush and weeds – things that can be fuel for a wildfire. The instructors all have numerous stories about experiences during controlled burns and responding to wildfires across the country.

The burn was the final activity of the day, and after, the girls’ parents gathered to pick them up.

“I can’t wait to hear all of the stories on the way home,” said Mary Onukiavage. She drove three-and-a-half hours from the Gulf Coast city of Bacliff to bring her daughter and three other girls to the event.

“We did this kind of as a girls’ trip … it’s, uh, girls only!” Onukiavage said.

All of the girls she brought to the training are junior cadets with the Bacliff Volunteer Fire Department. Onukiavage says her daughter wants to be a firefighter. But she says it’s been hard to find good programs for young girls who want to break into the field.

“I’m excited about all of the adventures my kids take,” Onukiavage said.  “So, to see her being able to kind of grow in what she’s found as her path for now, it’s really nice.”

She plans to bring her daughter back to the program when it meets for the second time next year.

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