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Deaf and Dedicated on the Fireline

Hydrologist shares story of service, adventure

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
July 4, 2024

Woman in hard hat and bright yellow shirt holds a small shovel and kicks out one leg while balanced on a large tree stump.
Nicole Bringholf takes a break during the Route Fire Complex Fire in Six Rivers National Forest, California. (USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Nicole Bringolf)

For Nicole Bringolf being deaf hasn’t stopped her from being many other things.  

She’s a self-proclaimed ski mountaineer, who summited several 14,000-foot peaks in the U.S. and Switzerland since college. She recently climbed Dufourspitze — the highest peak of Monte Rosa, Switzerland, at 15,203 feet.

She was the third deaf person to get her U.S. pilot's license with instrument rating in the U.S. and the only woman to do so worldwide.  

She has a bent for adventure.

Bringolf has been deaf since she was 1 year old. She has learned to understand people through the little sounds she can hear, reading lips and body language.

“I have a hearing aid. And it is really loud at fire camps. But if I'm in a quiet, quiet place in the middle of nowhere and someone calls my name, I will hear that voice,” Bringolf said.

Woman standing for portrait with long yellow fire shirt on
As a Resource Advisor hydrologist, Nicole Bringolf puts her skills to use protecting water sources and developing fire suppression techniques. She has been deaf since she was 1 year old, but that has not stopped her from responding to wildfires and achieving her dreams.  (USDA FS photo by Andrew Avitt).  

Looking at Fire Differently

Bringolf currently works for the USDA Forest Service as the assistant regional hydrologist for California, Hawai'i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands, managing watersheds across 18 national forests.  

Though she loves the nuance of her job — water rights and usage laws in California can be tricky — she also loves sharing her knowledge to assist wildland firefighters and respond to wildfires across the country.  

“I’m often asked how I work in wildfire as a deaf person. How can I be safe? There are many misconceptions about deafness,” said Bringolf. “But it has never been a major issue. I can talk, and I use sign language. Whenever I go to a fire camp, I let my supervisor for that incident know I’m deaf. I set up a communication plan when I’m out on an assignment. The only thing I ask is that I have a buddy, so I do not go out on the fire line alone.”  

That buddy is usually someone with a different skill set, like an archeologist or a public information officer, who wants to see fire activity up close.  

She admits this is probably a good idea for those who can hear too.

Woman with hair tied back sets up small, square electronic box atop a metal tripod.
Nicole Bringolf sets up the smoke monitor at the incident command post for the Brianhead Fire in Utah.. (USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Nicole Bringolf)

Deaf people often fight the cultural assumption that others need sign language to communicate with them. They see deafness as a hearing impairment or a disability.  

Yet deaf people hear with their eyes and have heightened awareness of their surroundings. Deafness is not a disability, it’s more of “an ability” to do things differently than their hearing counterparts. There are deaf doctors and nurses, deaf firefighters, deaf musicians and dancers, deaf pilots, and deaf scientists.  

“The things that we deaf people do pretty much prove conclusively that deaf can do anything,” said Bringholf.  

Bringolf has responded to 10 wildfires across the country since she first started 12 years ago as a hydrologist trainee on a Burned Area Emergency Response Team. That’s the team called up to assess potential impacts and damages from the fire. They also suggest ways to reduce the damage and rehabilitate an area post fire. Lately, she has been serving as a Resource Advisor and an Air Resource Advisor.  

Woman in bright yellow hard hat and Forest Service uniform stands with shovel in hand, with small backhoe behind her in forest.
As an Air Quality Resource Advisor, Bringholf uses binoculars to monitor the smoke trajectory of the Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon. (USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Nicole Bringolf )

When Bringolf is on a fire as an Air Resource Advisor, she works directly with the Incident Management Team to gather information from their sources. She models current and future smoke conditions and communicates that information to the incident teams, air quality regulators, and the public.  

“It can be challenging to do air quality because I have to work with the public and do public speaking and that's not my greatest strength. I know I have an accent, so I try my best to make myself clear for other people to understand me,” she said.

As a Resource Advisor hydrologist, she also puts her skills to use surveying the watershed. She helps determine the need to protect water sources and develop recommendations for fire suppression repairs.  

Individuals will approach her in public with questions after realizing she’s deaf. “They ask how I got this position working on fire assignments and how they can.”  

Oftentimes people don’t even realize there are assignments beyond being a firefighter.  

“There are so many supporting jobs like supply, finance, public information, Geographic Information Systems, medical, fleet support,” she said.

Those jobs require an incident qualification card.

Woman in bright yellow hard hat and Forest Service uniform stands with shovel in hand, with small backhoe behind her in forest.
Bringholf works on post-fire recovery at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California.  (USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Nicole Bringolf)

Being Red Card Ready on the Fireline

Bringolf has an incident qualification card, often referred to as a red card. This is used to certify an individual has the qualifications to serve in qualified position.    

She takes an annual physical fitness test known as a pack test, the same one firefighters take to be qualified on the fireline. A 3-mile hike in a 45-pound vest in under 45 minutes. A red card allows her to directly assess the effects wildfire has had on the watershed.

“Supervisors are often unaware this is possible because they've never heard of any deaf person on a fire incident. So, I want to put myself out there and let everyone everybody know it is possible. Yes, deaf people can support fire incidents,” she said.  

There are three other deaf Forest Service employees who have served on fire assignments in California, Washington and Colorado. “These three gals who I have run into while on assignments are the coolest deaf firefighters serving in either finance, agency administrator, receiving and distribution manager, and medical unit leader.”

Like others on the fireline, she wears fire-resistant boots, clothing and a helmet. She carries a backpack with an emergency fire shelter and radio. “I’ve learned proper procedures and channels to communicate on the radio. I have a call sign to use and that people I work with know that I'm deaf.”  

During the morning briefings, Bringolf is there following along in that day’s incident action plan. Often you can find her in the front row, reading the lips of each speaker.  

So if you see her out on assignment, don’t be shy.  

“Don’t be afraid to come over and communicate with deaf people. Just because we cannot hear, people should not feel discouraged from interacting with us or communicating with us,” said Bringolf. “I do find that someone who had a working relationship with a deaf person is far more comfortable approaching me than someone who has never met a deaf person.”  

And for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and want to explore professional opportunities in wildland firefighting, Bringholf has your back.

“This should not be an impediment if this is something they want to explore in life. I would say start taking the required training and then go from there,” she said.” I just want to get the message out that deaf people can do anything — they can be pilots, medical professionals, lawyers and firefighters.”

“You can do it if you want to do it — just do it.”