Forest Service Women in the Field / Firefighters

Lisa SimmonsTraditionally, firefighting has been a male-dominated profession, however over the last several decades that has changed. cFire Prevention Officer Liza Simmons, of the Alpine Ranger District, is one of them.

Liza grew up in Northern Vermont, where her family owned and operated a small dairy farm. She attended the University Of Vermont where she took a course called political ecology. She was tasked to write a paper about a “hot topic” in the news that involved the environment and politics. The idea for her topic came while watching the newscast showing wildfires across the nation. After writing her paper on the fires of 2000, she decided to take more courses incorporating fire and fire ecology, including Fire Ecology and Prescribed Burning. These courses generated interest in working for a land management agency and fighting fire. She thought it would be a great way to make money to pay off her student loans. Liza stated “This really piqued my interest in moving out West for the summer to do something that seemed dangerous and exciting. I never thought I would still be fighting fire 16 years later.”

Her first fire assignment was a small lightning-caused fire on the Black Hills National Forest. Simmons says “people were talking non-stop over the radio, and a helicopter was dropping water near us. It was both exhilarating and scary at the same time.” She remembers thinking at the time, no amount of studying or practicing scenarios could ever prepare a person for the real thing.

Her most memorable assignment was not a fire assignment, it was when she was dispatched to help with the Columbia Shuttle Recovery. The camp was the largest she had ever seen with over 1500 people from multiple agencies, disciplines and states. It was overcrowded and sometimes they had to wait in line for hours just for food. The field conditions were extremely difficult with briars, poisonous snakes, wet living conditions and many people got sick. But Simmons says “I felt like what I was doing was going to be a big part of history. Someday I was going to be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped find pieces to the Columbia Shuttle and helped solve the mystery of its demise.” This assignment was also the first assignment where she was the only female on a 20-person crew. One of the crewmembers asked her if it bothered her to be the only female on the crew and she said, “not at all. It just feels like I have 19 brothers looking out for me.”

Many times Liza has felt that she may have made the wrong decision by going into fire, like when she is hot, thirsty, dirty, and breathing smoke on the fire line. When times get tough, Liza thinks of what her mom always says:  “Take one day at a time. Tomorrow might be better or worse than today, but there is no point in stressing about it because we often can’t control it.”

Liza expressed her feelings of her current position on the Alpine Ranger District “ I feel fortunate to work in the realm of fire prevention where I spend most of my time educating children and adults about preventing wildfires, but I can still experience the excitement of firefighting.”