Women Sought to Tackle Wildfires in New Mexico Forests

“With any diversity hiring, our goal is to get as many of those underrepresented groups to have the opportunity to apply for positions through the Forest Service, whether that’s fire or any other function.”

by Megan Bennett, Albuquerque Journal, N.M. / August 5, 2019

(TNS) — Growing up in the mountains of northern New Mexico, Vidalia Vigil learned all about “roughing it” and hard work at an early age.

The 24-year-old recalled going out for her own wood, learning how to use power tools in her early teens and camping regularly throughout her upbringing around Pecos. This background came in handy when, right out of high school, she became an on-call wildland firefighter in the Pecos/Las Vegas district with the Santa Fe National Forest. Being a member of the hand crew started as a way to make money in the summers between college semesters, but she says her passion later grew.

She explained that she was “in awe” at her first fire; being able to overcome challenges in the moment was something that Vigil says stuck with her. So did seeing thousands of people from a variety of professions coming together to help, from the firefighters to the medical teams to the GIS and weather experts to the caterers bringing food to the workers.

Since she began seven seasons ago, Vigil has moved around to other Forest Service districts across the country, including in states like Wyoming and Nevada. While working in Nevada, she was appointed a lead firefighter on a Type 3 fire engine, a truck used in wildfires that can carry about 600 gallons of water. She returned to her roots at SFNF’s Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District a few years ago to lead the more compact, Type 6 trucks used in higher terrains. This year, she became a fire prevention officer. Though she still goes out to wildfires, her job is now largely about educating the public and helping coordinate firefighting efforts with other federal agencies.

To this day, she says, no day in the fire field is the same.

“I have seven years (of experience) and there’s some things I still haven’t experienced or seen,” said Vigil. “It’s a constant learning area. It’s not stagnant (or) just going to work and push some papers around.”

SFNF and Carson are following in the footsteps of other national forests in New Mexico and Arizona to help women find their way into wildland firefighting. For the first time, they will offer the Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camps. The camps, which provide interested individuals with the skills to earn entry-level firefighter certifications leading up to next year’s fire season, will be held Sept. 14-15 and 21-22 at the SFNF headquarters. Applications are due Aug. 17 at 4:30 p.m. Attendees must be able to attend both weekends.

The forest’s female fire employees like Vigil will help SFNF’s deputy fire staff officer Terrance Gallegos with the camps.

“Women are pretty underrepresented in the wildland fire community,” said Gallegos. “It’s primarily been the jobs have been occupied by males. There’s an underrepresented group, and we hope this can garner some interest and get them (women) interested in this line of work.”

Supporting diversity

Of the approximately 70 permanent fire positions currently offered at both Santa Fe and Carson national forests, five are occupied by women, according to SFNF spokesperson Julie Ann Overton. It was unclear as of press time how many seasonal firefighters stationed at all of the forests’ districts are female.

When she started out on that on-call crew at age 18, Vigil recalls being one of three women.

“There were 200 guys and three girls, to put that into perspective,” she said.

However, in the years since – and thanks to her travels to other states through the Forest Service – she has seen a higher concentration of women getting involved. She mentioned meeting all-female engine crews that work in Oregon and Alaska. She also added that she knows of ladies when working in Nevada who joined the force after serving in the U.S. Navy.

But Vigil said she’d still like to see more women in the field. She said women could be an asset, not only because they could bring new perspectives to the crews, but also the experience could help them learn something new about themselves.

“We can do anything we set our minds to, and it can also open doors and make you realize things you didn’t know you could do,” said Vigil.

Though these are the inaugural boot camps for SFNF and Carson, the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern regional office in Albuquerque began the program in 2012, offering the boot camps in the Duke City and Phoenix. Women from across New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, as well Kentucky, Maryland and New York, have participated in previous years, according to workforce development and training specialist Tobe Haught. Haught is the regional contact for the forests organizing the women’s boot camps.

Eventually, individual national forests throughout the region, like Cibola and Gila, picked up the program and the national headquarters allotted additional money to go toward these programs as a way to support workforce diversity initiatives.

‘Working long hours’

From 2012-18, Haught said, 282 women have completed the program. In 2018, 93 women completed the boot camp at six different national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. Of those women who participated last year, Haught said at least 22 have since accepted firefighting positions, largely within stations in the Southwest region. Another 12 were tapped to be on-call, emergency firefighters at Cibola National Forest.

Haught said there may be more women from the program who have gone on to fire-related jobs, and the regional office plans to spend more time tracking the data of the camp attendees and subsequent careers. But either way, Haught said, officials are interested in reaching higher percentages of women who go from the training to a hired role.

“With any diversity hiring, our goal is to get as many of those underrepresented groups to have the opportunity to apply for positions through the Forest Service, whether that’s fire or any other function,” said Haught. “The higher we see that number, the better we like it.”

Gallegos explained that, during the camp, which in Santa Fe will have room for about 30 people, the group will begin with an introductory wildland fire curriculum, including typical suppression strategies, the Incident Command System used to help determine a fire’s severity, as well as how wind and topography can impact fire behavior. The women will also be taken into the field to go over different engines, tools and operations when out on a call.

The women who participate in the camps will also be given information about how to apply for seasonal firefighting jobs within government agencies, Gallegos said. The educational training that will be provided in the boot camp, he explained, is one of the prerequisites for receiving a “red card,” or an incident qualification card. The card, which is what wildland firefighters produce at the scene of an incident to prove they are supposed to be there, would be given to someone after they are hired by a duty station, and after they complete a “pack test.” The physical fitness evaluation requires candidates to walk three miles in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack of firefighting equipment.

Taking the boot camp and going through the training before applying for duty stations, Gallegos explained, gives these firefighter candidates a “leg up.”

“It’s tough to just hire someone off the street for us and have to put them through the training because fire season comes so quickly … . It’s nice when people who come in have the training,” he explained.

Gallegos would encourage anyone to try the training, but he emphasized that the job as well-suited to someone able to handle an “arduous, physical” trade that comes with being away from home for days, sometimes weeks, during the wildfire season.

“You have to like working long hours, typically on an incident,” he explained. “You can work anywhere from 14-16 hours a day, and you’d do that for 14 days straight.”

For anyone, not just women, interested in this line of work, Vigil said open-mindedness and confidence are key. She also said people from any background could give it a go.

Forest officials hope that the women who have completed the training would apply for positions at Santa Fe and Carson districts, Gallegos said, but the training and certifications to get the red card are applicable to federal wildland fire jobs offered across the country, particularly those within agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

“The most important thing is for them to get their foot in the door, no matter where that’s at,” said Gallegos.

Camps & Dates

A full list of the camps being held this year across New Mexico and Arizona, and their dates is available under the Fire & Aviation tab at www.fs.usda.gov/r3.

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©2019 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

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