I don’t remember the day I left the hotshot base. My memory, usually photographic, is marred by my gradual departure, as with the slow disintegration of the relationship I had with my tall, muscular, macho hotshot boyfriend. I left both for a desert town in California. That I would opt to live in a shitty desert town—whose oil pumps resembled large, stiff-necked birds pumping up and down in the wavering heat—rather than stay in either my hotshot crew or my relationship shows how desperate I was to leave both.
My foray into wildland firefighting was encouraged by another queer woman who had spent seven years on a contract fire crew out of Springfield, Oregon. For me, it was firefighting or death: I was a college dropout, broke, and in deep with the same drugs I’d tried to escape by moving out of my hometown. My friend advised that I try firefighting. I’d seen the ads in the newspaper bragging “good pay, no experience.” I needed no convincing.
For two years, I worked on contract crews. Then, at the age of 21, I took my first job on a Northern California hotshot crew, an elite firefighting crew with the United States Forest Service (USFS). My memory serves me here: when I arrived on base straight from New York, my superintendent handed me a couple hundred bucks to hold me over until payday. I had seen hotshot buggies before on fires over the past two summers—little buses equipped for a crew of 22—but here I was, a hotshot myself.
My crew hadn’t hired a woman in a long time, and now I was the only one. Hotshots are typically about 95 percent male, and most crews have at most two women, if any. I learned quickly that my gender meant I had the full attention of almost the entire crew.
On the first physical training hike of the year, I came in last, but not far behind the others. Being last, though, meant I was weak, which meant I needed to prove otherwise. I filled my pack with weights and hiked on my own after work. By the time we were called to our second fire, I could carry my weight as a crew member and was in the middle of the pack when we did physical training.
But this didn’t matter to some crew members, including my superintendent. “Hey guys,” he’d say when addressing the crew—”and girl,” making sure everyone knew I was different. He would single me out to fill in reports and timesheets, claiming it was due to my good handwriting. He brought conversations about my appearance into professional settings and told stories about other female crew members who had been better than me, more “relaxed” and not so “sensitive.” One of my captains, in an attempt to be fair, told the entire crew that I would never be able to hike as fast as some of the men because my lungs were smaller.
I internalized these messages and started inhaling self-improvement books and tapes, believing that if I could toughen up I’d be accepted. I consistently volunteered for the hardest jobs, including carrying the “piss pump” (a 45-pound rubbery backpack filled with water) or dolmars (gigantic metal tins filled with fuel). Yet my efforts were forgotten at the first sign of a mistake or vulnerability. I worked for months with a fractured ankle, not wanting to complain, but it didn’t matter. The composition of most hotshot crews has remained unchanged for decades: men whose masculinity is so fragile that they’re not allowed to express discomfort.
Despite many outside efforts to create space specifically for women, this macho attitude persists. On my crew, this masculinity took the form of intense policing of vulnerability. Crew members were labeled soft, or “pussies.” If a crew member didn’t swing their tool hard enough they were mocked: “Swing your purse harder, Alice,” the men would say in high-pitched girlish imitations. I was taught I was weak, and I worked alongside that definition, always trying to find a way through it so I could finally be seen as strong. I never got there.
“[T]he toxic, hyper-masculine culture of the USFS bleeds into the ways our forests have been mismanaged, leading to the catastrophic junction of unhealthy forests and climate change.”
Not all hotshot crews are managed with this macho attitude. I have spoken to a handful of people who work on crews that are actively seeking women and minorities and know diversity is the key to strength. And the same goes for the USFS. Some regions and sub-regions are functioning successfully, but they are the minority. Sexism and bigotry in the USFS isn’t going unreported either. But what this reporting misses is how the toxic, hyper-masculine culture of the USFS bleeds into the ways our forests have been mismanaged, leading to the catastrophic junction of unhealthy forests and climate change.
In 2018, California experienced its worst fire season ever—having just had its worst fire season the year before. Both seasons were obviously unprecedented, but the arrival of one directly after the other is terrifying. Wildfires and climate change are inextricably linked, but historical factors are at play too. The mismanagement of fuels and forests throughout the United States began when white, mostly male, explorers headed west and found abundant, pristine old-growth forests. They immediately began to deplete the forests without considering the ecological impact or how Native Americans had managed the lands. When trees were replanted after forests were razed, it was in service of cash—more trees, more money—instead of in service of restoring and caring for the ecosystem.
When a primeval forest is clearcut, its ecological balance is disrupted. A healthy forest has trees spaced tens of feet apart. With widespread canopies, trees can individually collect vital nutrients and remain healthy. Unfortunately, trees aren’t often replanted with these considerations in mind. Replanted trees instead grow fast, thin, and close together, and because of fire suppression protocols, the forest floor is rarely cleared of debris—creating a high fuel load. The trees are unhealthy, and when they succumb to disease, the forest becomes a tinderbox.
In 1910, after a fire known as “The Big Blowup,” which burned three million acres throughout Washington, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia, the USFS implemented a policy to suppress all fires before 10am the morning following their ignition. This policy has created uncontrolled growth, which in turn has made forests more susceptible to drought and beetle infestations. When a fire hits a forest that hasn’t been burned in twenty years—one which houses thousands of dead and dying trees—disaster happens.
Just as minority voices have been ignored in the lower pillars of the USFS, environmentalists and ecologists have likewise been ignored by those helming the federal organization. For decades, environmentalists have promoted scientific findings that point towards more fire-friendly management systems, and some loggers and ecologists have even found a common belief in thinning, a technique for harvesting trees more mindfully than clearcutting. But these voices and approaches have been silenced throughout the USFS, and indeed, throughout history. As seen in California, with two back-to-back record-setting fire seasons, the consequences of ignoring all of these voices has been disastrous.
“The composition of most hotshot crews has remained unchanged for decades: men whose masculinity is so fragile that they’re not allowed to express discomfort.”
Several weeks before I left the hotshot crew, I was sitting in our buggy trying to figure out what to do about Jimmy, a crew member who had been stalking me. We had been friends the year before, but the relationship soured after I left my boyfriend, one of the alpha members of the crew. I kept seeing Jimmy outside of work at bars and restaurants, even the grocery store. During fires, he would follow me, correcting my work and telling me I didn’t belong on the crew.
Taking the advice of my captain’s wife—who had been on the crew years before—I confronted Jimmy. I told him to stop following and criticizing me, to leave me alone or else I would go to human resources. Two of my fellow crew members overheard this and followed me back to the buggy, asking who I thought I was to tell Jimmy I would go to HR to threaten his job. They were larger than me, tall and broad and strong, and in my memory they curve over me cartoonishly, their faces contorted with rage. Another crew member sat in the backseat silently as they berated me. I left the crew before the end of fire season, giving up my permanent position.
I don’t know if my old hotshot crew has changed. I think it probably has. My superintendent stepped down due to sexual harassment charges. But I also know that there are dozens of crews in the United States that still run with a token woman or no women at all. I know that there are women and queer folx who are living through trauma right now, and who will be further traumatized by the backlash they’ll face for being honest about their experiences.
What would happen if the Forest Service embraced inclusivity? Given its history and current approaches, this is a radical thing to ask. The Forest Service motto is “Caring for the land and serving people,” but the USFS has long prioritized revenue and adhered to old, unhelpful policies on almost every level. It has established itself as an agency that would rather squash and oppress divergent voices than bring them into the fold and seriously consider different ways of operating.
Image credit: Forest fire, United States Department of Agriculture (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)