Los Padres NF Wins Award for Women In Wildland Fire Training

  • By Paul Wade, Julissa Gonzalez and Andrew Madsen
A line of women dressed as Forest Service firefighters stand during a training class. A line of women dressed in forest firefighting gear hikes up a hillside. A line of women dressed in forest firefighting gear hikes up a hillside. A line of women dressed in forest firefighting gear stand in a field with shovels and hoes.

In 2014 the Los Padres National Forest received a Washington Office diversity grant to fund a project designed to engage and recruit under-represented groups into the Fire Program. Forest Supervisor Robert Baird decided to focus on a new and innovative way to promote diversity and inclusion through a Women In Wildland Fire Training Camp. The Training Camp introduces students to basic wildland firefighting techniques and tactics, and provides opportunities for females to explore careers in fire.

“There’s a place in the Forest Service for everyone in the community, whether that’s in fire, recreation, prevention or law enforcement, the Forest Service really does have something to offer everyone,” said Laura Barney, senior firefighter instructor at the camp.

Over the past three years this initiative has successfully trained 41 female participants for wildland firefighting careers, and 10 were hired by the forest as seasonal firefighters. As California braces for its usual wildfire season some of the graduates from the latest class in December could be on a fire line within months. LPNF has since won a Chief’s Award for Excellence as a High Performing Agency.

More than 450 applicants have applied since the programs conception and due to the rigorous screening and testing, like the Agency Work Capacity Test, which involves a three-mile walk that must be completed wearing a 45-pound weight vest in less than 45 minutes, the end result is one more qualified firefighter wielding a Pulaski, or a McLeod, battling back the blazes. And the number of interested women continues to rise.

Participants, partners and local and district representatives are spreading the news about the program and attending the graduations to show their support. Local news station, KEYT, covered one training class and a contract video was produced. The realistic introduction to the complexities of wildland fire, hands-on field exercises, leadership and career development training, create a highly competitive atmosphere for wildland firefighter positions.

“I want to be on a hand crew, short term goal, and then hotshots. That would be really nice, that would be kind of cool,” said student, Lauren Iverson, smiling.

“Opportunities like this allow people and especially women to see role models, see women like themselves, doing these jobs. It has shown me a whole scope of things that I’m qualified for,” said Kelli Whorl, a training camp student.

The pool of interested candidates continues to grow and the LPNF has committed to staying in touch, streamlining a way to provide them with information year after year regarding temporary and other much-needed seasonal fire employment opportunities. The Women In Wildland Fire Training Camp Program has become a vital recruitment tool because it creates a gateway to temporary employment in Fire. This program not only benefits the forest, but contributes to overall agency-wide hiring needs in an era of declining female participation in firefighting.

The Training Camp core team built upon the lessons learned in the first Training Camp to refine the outreach, curriculum and setting for the follow-on camps in an effort to continue to improve the overall experience. The Training Camp received the Regional Forester’s Honor Award for healthy workplace and workforce diversity in Civil Rights in 2015.