WORDS BY MÉLISSA GODIN
photograph by Jennifer Osborne
The Frontline talks to women who work on wildfires by setting forests ablaze to reduce wildfire risk in a world shaped by climate change.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson grew up with fire.
She saw it rip through her backyard in Trinity County, a rural, forested area in northern California. She watched her mother cook meals to bring to firefighters onsite during wildfire seasons. Back then, Quinn-Davidson believed fire was a menace: something to be feared and avoided.
“I was really scared of it growing up,” she said.
That changed when Quinn-Davidson went off to study ecology at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000, where she learned that fires were not always a threat but a tool for protecting the environment. “Now, fire is my passion.”
Quinn-Davidson is part of a growing movement of women and gender non-conforming people working in the field of prescribed burning, an age-old practice that involves intentionally setting fires to maintain the health of forests. Prescribed fire can achieve all sorts of objectives—from treating invasive plants to maintaining woodlands. But its power lies in its ability to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires by clearing the dead debris of forest floors—the embers that spark and spread wildfires.
“Prescribed fire has a huge role moving forward with climate change,” said Quinn-Davidson, who now works as a fire adviser with the University of California. “If you can restore the natural fire regime to a forest, you’re going to be more resilient in the same face of drought and climate change.”
Historically, fire agencies have been reluctant to use fire as a tool. But as wildfires become more frequent and intense, the fire industry is increasingly turning to prescribed burning as a potential solution.
Quinn-Davidson believes the key to its success is ensuring that the fire industry becomes more diverse—with people from all cultural, gender, ethnic, and economic backgrounds becoming leaders of prescribed burning.
“The scale of the issues we are facing in fire necessitates that we have more diverse people with diverse talents and new ideas,” she said.
The Age When Fires Burned
Historically, fires used to hold a central place in the life cycle of forests in North America.
For millennia, Indigenous people have recognized the importance of fire to maintain their land, intentionally burning areas between forests and grasslands to ensure that, in the event a wildfire began, it would not spread. For thousands of years, they also let fires occur naturally.
“We burned at all times of the year—from the high mountaintops down to the ocean,” said Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok Tribe in northern California and cofounder and executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, an organization that facilitates the practice of cultural burning on ancestral land.
As a result, forests across the continent used to look quite different from the ones we have today: reports from early settlers arriving on the eastern shore describe forests with trees so far apart, they could ride their carriages through them.
The approach to fire changed dramatically when European colonizers settled on the continent. Massive wildfires in the late 1800s led non-Indigenous conservationists at the time to view fire as a threat—rather than a friend—to the environment. In 1911, the Forest Service’s first director, Gifford Pinchot, promoted the idea that all fires were dangerous and needed to be extinguished. This resulted in decades of federal policy decisions that would call for the suppression of all fires as quickly as possible.
“It had a devastating effect on Native people’s ability to care for the land with fire,” Robbins said. “If we were seen lighting a fire, they would shoot us.”
Although this didn’t stop many Native people from practicing their traditional fire practices, it certainly limited the scale of it. Meanwhile, the suppression of all fires dramatically changed the continent’s forests—and has had some catastrophic impacts on their ecosystems.
Without regular fires, invasive species can take hold of forests, threatening their biodiversity. Fire suppression prevents the removal of dead debris from forest floors. Most critically, stopping small-scale fires increases the likelihood of large-scale wildfires.
“There is so much of an emphasis on putting out fire that we are doing ourselves a disservice on the ecological side,” said Katie Sauerbrey, who works as the Oregon fire program manager for The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group. “We are benefiting humans in the short term, but in doing so, we are creating a larger problem.”
“It’s exciting to know that they are recognizing the value of Native knowledge when it comes to taking care of the land with fire.”
The Return of Prescribed Burning
The scale and intensity of wildfires have dramatically increased in recent years due to both the historic suppression of natural fires, as well as warmer and drier conditions caused by climate change.
Globally, the length of the annual fire weather season has increased by an average of 14 days a year between 1979 and 2019. 2020 was a record year for wildfires in the U.S. with nearly 9 million acres burned, a twofold increase from the year before. Over the past 10 years, the number of people dying in the U.S. due to forest fires has increased by 3%. Since 2000, 16 forest fires in the U.S. have cost at least $1 billion in damages each. Over 4.8 million U.S. homes are at high or extreme risk from wildfires.
This has scientists, politicians, and firefighters alike desperately looking for solutions and turning to prescribed burning—a strategy long ignored—as a way to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
“I certainly got lots of strange looks when I began speaking about prescribed burning,” said Deborah Landau, who began working in the field 15 years ago and is now director of ecological management at The Nature Conservancy Maryland Chapter. “But increasingly, there is more recognition and acceptance.”
Last year, a bipartisan group in Congress proposed new legislation that would require federal, state, county, and private land managers to increase their use of prescribed burning. It didn’t successfully make it through committee, but scientists are increasingly using advanced techniques—from drone-mounted sensors for mapping terrain to machines that capture airborne particles—to determine how to best deploy prescribed burning in changing climatic conditions. Some fire agencies are turning to Indigenous people for guidance and fire solutions.
“It’s exciting to know that they are recognizing the value of Native knowledge when it comes to taking care of the land with fire,” Robbins said, but she adds that she hopes “fire will be returned to the hands of the people.”
To successfully reintegrate prescribed burning into fire management plans, all sectors of society need to be included this time: from Indigenous people to women.
The Path to Decolonization
Fire departments continue to be dominated by white men: one survey found men represent nearly 80% of wildland firefighters, and 84% identified as white. Very few women occupy positions of power and even fewer come from Indigenous backgrounds. As Quinn-Davidson points out, even the gear is designed for men. One study found that this leads to impaired mobility and restricted range of motion for women on the job.
Women, gender non-conforming people, and people of color who do find themselves working in the industry often face discrimination, such as misogyny, racism, sexual harassment, and abuse.
“I had someone tell me one time, Katie is doing a good job, but when she reaches childbearing age, she’s not going to want to do this anymore,” Sauerbrey said, noting that fire culture remains very male and militaristic. This is exactly the kind of discrimination people like Quinn-Davidson want to address.
That’s why in 2016, Quinn-Davidson helped The Nature Conservancy organize an event about prescribed burning and women in northern California. Ninety percent of the participants invited to the event were women, and 10% were men, an inversion of typical gender representation in the industry. The goal was to help position women and people of all gender, ethnic, and racial backgrounds as leaders in prescribed burning.
“We were not sure how it would be received,” she said. “But it was really powerful, more so than we could have imagined.”
Women from state and federal agencies, Indigenous communities, and universities attended. The event was the first time many women firefighters had found themselves surrounded by other women, discussing their views about how the industry needs to change to be not only more inclusive but also more imaginative in the solutions it pursues.
“Fire has been very rigid and unchanging, and we’re seeing that that is not working,” Quinn-Davidson said. “Much like we need more biodiversity to make our forests more resilient, we need more social diversity in our forest management plans.”
Since then, the event has become an annual tradition. The next event will run through Oct. 7—with a focus on Indigenous women and solutions.
“Indigenous knowledge, in a lot of ways, is the longest body of knowledge here on this land,” said Vikki Preston, an event organizer who works for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been proven over time to work here. It’s an old science.”
The organizers have also made sure to invite people with gender non-conforming identities to join as well. “Since the early 1900s, there have been so many people fighting to bring fire back,” Preston said, noting that many of these advocates have been women and gender non-conforming people. “I’m so glad we get to highlight women and other genders.”
There is undoubtedly excitement about how the wildfire fighting industry is changing to include new techniques and new voices. But with this excitement comes mourning: for the billions of dollars spent, the many ecosystems destroyed, and the thousands of deaths that could have been avoided had fire agencies listened to Indigenous people 100 years ago.
“Our landscape has been changed by the fire suppression policies since colonization,” Preston said. “[Wildfires] are the legacy we are living with.”
The future of wildland firefighting has to be more diverse: if history has taught us anything, it is that its success depends on it.
September 29, 2022 9:49 am
The spelling for Vikki Preston's name has been corrected.