California wildfires, inclusion and agency.

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With all the fires taking place throughout California, I thought I would ask those on the front-lines their thoughts on what may be at play in these massive fires and what we can do to encourage more women and people of color to apply for  various firefighting agencies.

This has been a very busy fire season for all the agencies I reached out to and I respect the time of those who responded to my request, but were not able to be included in this article. I thank you for your efforts and commitment in fighting wild-land fires throughout the state and beyond.  Cal Fire, Forest Service, The NPS Fire and Aviation Management division and California Conservation Corps.

Fortunately for me, I was able to speak with Kelly Martin, Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite ( NPS ). As you will see, she was very open and frank in all the questions I asked of her.

Kelly, when it comes to women and people of color in the firefighting segment of the NPS, what are some of the hurdles they face when it comes to applying and, maintaining their position within the agency?

When it come to applying for a job, It all starts with an awareness of the jobs that are available. If we do not reach out to underrepresented and under-served communities, people of color and women do not know these kinds of jobs exist for them. We need to start with high school sport groups and job fairs.

This is just the first hurdle. Let’s say you have gone out recruiting for women and people of color to help staff your organization and you have several really good candidates that are highly interested in applying for your jobs; they even give you impeccable resumes and references. As a recruiter (my staff and I) next have to walk them through the maze of applying for a job through USA Jobs or FIREHIRE to ensure they get a good application into to the system to even be considered.

2 years ago, Yosemite had 800 applicants for less then maybe 4 or 5 entry level positions. The way the current system works, if you do not have veterans preference you are not likely going to get hired as an entry level firefighter. The year of our 800 applicants we had roughly 40 veterans to choose from; we hired several of them and they are outstanding firefighters. Unfortunately no matter how good your outreach efforts are you may not be able to hire the candidate you have worked so hard to hire.

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Needless to say we rarely have the staff time to drive to each college and job fair to recruit for people of color and women to join our team when the outcome of being able to hire our recruits is so dismal. They are frustrated with the hope and we are frustrated with our time commitment with little hope of getting to their application when hundreds of people apply. By the way the NPS is but a small recruiter in the face of the USFS and CALFIRE . Most highly sought after and talented individuals often get better offers with our sister agencies.

When it comes to maintaining positions, once you have made a positive effort to recruit women and minorities to your organization now comes the even more difficult task of keeping talented women and minorities in your program. Few people understand the complexities of living and working at a remote station with other people. More often than not once this aspect of the work is explained; there is interest in giving it a try. Being away from home and away from family is sometimes very difficult. The cost of housing or a long dreaded commute is often another deal killer for highly talented individuals. Rent can often exceed 50% of their take-home pay. This may be one area the agency can find ways to improve or remove this barrier.

Once here though, other challenges that are faced are less obvious. People of Color and women will often find themselves as the only “minority” in their work-group. For individuals experiencing this for the first time it is very uncomfortable for both the minority and the mostly white male work-group. I’m not sure we have done a good enough job with both groups to help develop a strong cohesive team from the beginning. It’s important to hear from men what their challenges have been in the past with a mixed gender/racial work groups. Some I have no doubt have been quite successful, other I’m sure have some stories they would love to tell but know that if they do described challenges, they may be labeled as not supporting a diverse workforce. We have all heard the talking heads in regards to sexual harassment, so I don’t think that is as big of an issue as it once was, but it would be interesting to see if young single females have experienced unwelcome advances and or other sexual/racial slurs.

I tell women and people of color if you can make it for 4 seasons and you still love your job, you likely have a career in firefighting. Its those 4 years that can be especially difficult as all eyes are on you to see how well you can perform and how many mistakes you make. People mostly remember the times you screw up and tend to talk about it to others to tacitly ensure others know you may not be as good as your male counter parts. This is so frustrating….but as females and minorities you must be able to find it in yourself and hopefully through a sponsor/coach/mentor to affirm or adjust your strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t get honest feedback from someone you trust, you are doomed to making the same mistakes over and over and wonder why no one will respect your contribution.

What support do you feel there needs to be in order to attract and maintain more women and people of color in firefighting agencies?

We should move beyond color brochures and videos that describe our agency as one that is inclusive of diverse individuals. We need strong men in powerful positions to guide and sponsor initiatives, funding, hiring authorities to really help make this real and consistent over time in the coming years. Ask the men in our organization what can or should be done to recruit highly talented individuals to their work group and what do they do or what kind of challenges have they faced in the past. I do want to believe most men will welcome a diverse work-group, but they know in doing so will change the culture and the casual conversations they have all become accustom to. Young men in their 20’s are not likely to know and understand the value of having a diverse work-group as men in their 40’s and 50’s. I don’t know how much this bias may still exist, but anytime a female takes on a “male job” it is almost universal that “she got the job because she is a women/minority”. Yet another tacit example of how women and people of color need to know exists in the fire culture and be able to find your own personal way to understand it in order to do your best job and not let this rattle you. None of us agree with this statement but sometimes poor performers be it men or women make it through the system. Problem is, when a poor performer is a female or minority it reflects poorly on the rest of us that have outstanding credentials – guilty by association I guess. It would also be an interesting conversation with the wives of male firefighters to help understand what goes on at home that may perpetuate subtle biases at work.

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In your years of experience fighting fires, have fires become harder to fight, larger in ground they cover and in the time span it takes to gain control?

I believed in a balanced approach to fire. Some fires are good some fires are bad; rarely are all fires ‘bad’. For each large wildfire there is always some good that will come out of the fire by reducing heavy fuels and helping regenerate new grasses, forbs, shrubs opening new seed beds for new trees to grow. We have to look at our landscapes and the people and property that are embedded in our forest ecosystems to understand and accept the use of mechanical treatments, prescribed fire and wildfire and to be able to tolerate smoke impacts. This pubic understanding will help us meet our objectives of protecting life and property. We need public fire advocates to help land management agencies protect our communities into the future in order to maintain and enhance ecosystem services and products we demand as a society: clean air, clean water, resilient landscapes capable of withstanding and benefiting from future perturbations such as fire.

Our wildfires are becoming so big that future fires will either be slowed or stopped by our current large fire footprints. Some will accelerate due to type conversions because of uncharacteristic high intensity and high severity fires that once burned with high frequency and low severity.

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