Women’s fire crew gains skills, confidence in training

The BLM/Montana Conservation Corps All-Women’s Fire Crew was deployed to Alaska this summer to battle the Hadweenzic River Fire in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. BLM Photo

WORLAND, Wyo. –Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wyoming hosted the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) All-Women’s Fire Crew for its third successful year of wildland firefighting, public land conservation stewardship projects and job training.

“Women are traditionally under-represented in wildland firefighting and we wanted to address that disparity,” said Rance Neighbors, BLM fire management specialist in Worland. “Through our partnership with MCC, we’re introducing women to job opportunities on Wyoming public lands and providing them with the training and skills they need to pursue wildland firefighting careers with confidence.”

In May, the new recruits—who came from all over the United States—were quickly introduced to Wyoming extremes as they trained, worked and camped in deep snow in Grass Creek, southwest of Meeteese. Unlike the typical “rookie school” for new firefighters, the MCC crew was stationed in the field at a wilderness 4-H camp, immersed in public land resources and honing new skills as they restored sage-grouse habitat by removing encroaching juniper. 

The BLM/Montana Conservation Corps All-Women’s Fire Crew trained in the snow southwest of Meeteese after first arriving in Wyoming. BLM Photo

Soon after completing the required training, including in-depth chainsaw use, the newly-minted Type 2 firefighters were on their way to Alaska for their first-ever wildland fire assignment. They took commercial flights, a fixed-wing, a helicopter and a boat to reach the Hadweenzic River Fire in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

“We helped build, cut and plumb multiple indirect fire lines, and got to build direct line on a spot fire that started across the river from the main fire,” said Shelby Decamps, the crew leader. “We were always waiting for the ideal burn window that seemed to be just out of reach, but we all got to learn and use a variety of valuable suppression techniques.”

Hannah Zamorski performs chainsaw maintenance as Patty Derner looks on. BLM Photo

After returning from Alaska, the crew spent three weeks on a cutting project near Meeteetse, removing conifers that crowd aspen stands. The women created a jack-straw effect with the fallen trees to exclude elk and other ungulates, giving new aspen shoots a chance to grow. 

Toward the end of their time in Worland, the women worked with the BLM recreation staff to build a boardwalk at the Gooseberry Badlands Scenic Overlook Trail, 25 miles west of town. Finally, the crew finished its season west of Rock Springs, cutting and piling encroaching juniper to be burned in the future, once again contributing to sage-grouse habitat restoration. 

Toward the end of their Wyoming assignment, the women worked with the BLM recreation staff to build a boardwalk at the Gooseberry Badlands Scenic Overlook Trail, 25 miles west of Worland. BLM photo

“The season came with its fair share of highs and lows,” said Decamps, “but we will head into next fire season feeling confident with the skills and knowledge we’ve gained.”

Now that their season has come to a close, the women are busily applying for firefighting and other natural resource-related jobs. Throughout the experience, they met with employees who introduced them to a spectrum of career opportunities that exist within the BLM. A high percentage of past participants in the program have pursued and accepted jobs in wildland fire. From the 2018 MCC crew, 85 percent of the women have secured jobs with federal agencies or a career in natural resource management outside of federal agencies and of those, 60 percent are fire-related positions. As AmeriCorps participants, the women also receive an education award which can be used at vocational schools that can provide them additional fire training.