All-women crew fights fires and gender stereotypes in Alaska

The National Park Service stationed a single crew of seven women in Alaska this year, with their training and work mainly taking place in Katmai and Denali. (Source: KTUU)
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 5:40 PM EDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU/Gray News) - The National Park Service welcomed the first all-women fire crew to Denali National Park & Preserve this summer, with the seven-woman team spending months training and working in Alaska.

The 2022 team of six crew members and one crew lead — who hail from all over the country — trained mostly within the boundaries of Katmai National Park & Preserve. That was before moving into Denali to finish the season during a year that’s already seen a whopping 3 million acres burned statewide, more than triple the average burn area, according to NPS.

National Park Service Fire Communication and Education Specialist Caron McKee said the program is bringing more resources to fires across Alaska.

“We are just super psyched to have the women up here this year,” McKee told KTUU. “We’re already starting to plan the logistics of having another women’s crew next year.”

McKee also said the program serves as a chance for people to see more women in the wildland firefighting field and provide those involved with mentorship and support.

“These all-female fire crews allow women to see other women working in fire, which can help them to envision their own opportunities,” McKee said.

The success of a 2021 NPS pilot program — which was based in Yosemite National Park in California & Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming — helped lead the group to Alaska, a state with ample options for firefighting training locations, to be part of the all-women conservation corps fire crew. Currently, Alaska has seen nearly 600 wildfires so far in 2022, according to Alaska Interagency Coordination Center data, with 68 shown as still active.

“We’ve been doing fuels reduction for the majority of our time here,” said crew member Helene Tracey, who explained that a large part of the job entails cutting down trees and removing dead brush to help reduce and even prevent wildfire impacts. “But we also did have a sabbatical where we were in a fire module and fought fire in Allakaket.”

The crew’s training included various courses both in the classroom and in the field, including studies on fire behavior, instruction on chainsaw use, and learning about the incident command system, along with a fitness test required as part of standards set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

“I feel like every person on this team brings something different, and we all are strong-willed and strong with different skill sets,” Olivia Lawrence, also a crew member for 2022, said. “That really makes it a great team that can do a lot. We’ve achieved a lot this season, and just seeing how we all can work together and have such a great experience together has been great.”

Starting in May, the seven women began their work as part of the NPS-hosted team, soon finding themselves out in the wilderness near and far away from other fire crews across the state.

“For about our first week, we were camped out several miles down from any other crew,” crew member Sophie Kuehn said. “So, it was really interesting to spend some time on our own out there, and then also be with other crews and interact with them, learn from them, and make new friends.”

Paige Myers, the crew lead, has spent time in Alaska already but said she had to accept the offer to guide the six other women on the team.

“Leading a crew wasn’t really something I wanted to pursue again,” Myers said. “I was working at Katmai for the Park Service last summer, but when I heard about the opportunity to lead the first female fire crew, I couldn’t say no.”

In addition to the work experience, she said, it allowed her to meet all these “awesome ladies, meet awesome people and make great connections.” She also said it allowed her to see more parts of Alaska she hadn’t visited.

While the statistics can vary depending on the source, a 2021 report from the National Fire Protection Association shows just 8% of all firefighters across America were female as of three years ago. When it comes to wildland firefighters, data typically shows women making up only a few percentage points more.

For the National Park Service specifically, less than 5% of those who are part of its wildland fire program leadership at the park level are women, the agency said. The hope is that its all-women program will help build a stronger representation of women in leadership roles in wildland firefighting.

“We really just want to provide this opportunity for women everywhere to see that they can absolutely be part of wildland fire,” McKee said. “It’s not just a male field.”

You can learn more about the NPS wildland firefighter application process, or check the annual Women in Fire Training Exchange program.