Trailblazers: Women in Fire
Virginia's female fire professionals are blazing new career trails while harnessing the power of fire to restore forests.
Women comprise a mere 10% of the national wildland fire workforce. A major goal of the annual Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) is to expand career and leadership opportunities.
WTREX events bring together people of all genders from TNC and similar organizations, state and federal agencies, tribes and universities. Ranging from rookie firefighters to experienced burn managers, the participants engage in 10 days of hands-on training, networking and mentoring in forest landscapes across the U.S.
In 2017, Nikole Simmons and Laurel Schablein from Virginia's Allegheny Highlands Program participated in the second annual WTREX in Mariposa, California. Nikole, who has flown on aerial crews igniting some of the largest controlled burns in Virginia, served on the WTREX planning team. TNC's Piney Grove Preserve will host the 2022 WTREX, following a 2-year hiatus due to Covid.
Nikole, Laurel and other women in fire here in Virginia are blazing new career trails while helping to restore vast forest systems. Read on to meet these forces of nature as they share their stories below.
NIKOLE SIMMONS, RESTORATION COORDINATOR, ALLEGHENY HIGHLANDS PROGRAM
I think one of the most valuable things about WTREX is that it gives women opportunities, which in my experience have been rare, to build a support network and to work with a variety of female leaders. Those of us on the WTREX planning team want to provide women with a safe environment to build their own leadership skills.
By far, the best thing about this experience has been working with so many talented women from all over the country. It is amazing to watch all of these folks come together and, in a matter of days, form a cohesive team.
The experience also challenged my preconceived notions about working with other women. I'm more aware of how utterly important it is to support one another and how strong we become when that happens.
JUDY DUNSCOMB, SENIOR Conservation SCIENTIST
My first burn was on a longleaf pine savanna in North Carolina in 1992 when I was an intern. Years later in Virginia, we recognized that, before we could fully restore red-cockaded woodpeckers to our Piney Grove Preserve, first we would have to bring back fire.
I eventually became the Virginia chapter's first fire manager, and along the way, my two most important mentors had been women. One was a brilliant Conservancy scientist determined to master fire management because our forests so urgently needed it. The other had worked on U.S. Forest Service fire crews out west—one of the first women to do so, I believe.
These days, my experience with fire helps me make new connections. People tend to perk up when you say you have wildland fire leadership experience. It commands respect.
Fire work also teaches you how important it is to plan, but how unlikely burn day will go exactly according to plan. You must remain flexible, keep sight of the big picture, and stay alert for red flags that may require a change of tactics or a shutdown.
I find many parallels in my current role and in other professions. For example, during a recent discussion I was facilitating among pipeline engineers about improving construction practices, I could accept that no plan can perfectly anticipate what they will encounter during construction. And then I was also able to articulate in a fair way how important it is to share their lessons learned. Without my fire experience, I would not have been able to bring that perspective to the table.
LAUREL SCHABLEIN, CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER, ALLEGHENY HIGHLANDS PROGRAM
Before WTREX, I loved my occasional day on the fire lines, but I had decided that the life of a full-fledged burn crew member was not for me. I was brimming with reservations about going to WTREX. Two weeks of physically and mentally exhausting days with a big group of new people sounded terrifying—but also like a great opportunity for heaps of professional and personal growth.
It turned out to be more than I could have ever expected. With a focus on training, operations can be slowed to allow for more questions, more thorough answers, and hands-on practice that you can't always get on a typical fast-paced controlled burn.
I gathered a whole new suite of tips for wielding a 14-pound chainsaw that left me feeling 100% more confident. More importantly, I had never been part of a community of colleagues so full of strength, intelligence, compassion and empathy. It became perfectly clear to me why people crave the life of fire camp.
We worked together, ate together, bunked together and supported one another. And now, back home at my regular duties, I feel the lasting effects of the mentorship and the inspiration that WTREX cultivated. I am obliged to those who made it possible and to every participant who enriched my experience.
JENNIFER DALKE, VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
My first experience with controlled burning was with the Georgia chapter in 2007. Most of those fires took place among amazing old-growth longleaf pines at places like Moody Forest and Broxton Rocks preserves.
One of my favorite memories was watching a gopher tortoise run (if you can call it running) into its burrow to wait out a burn. We went back to that burrow while mopping up after the burn, and out came an Eastern indigo snake—the first and only one I've ever seen. Gopher tortoise burrows provide refuge for hundreds of other species.
I was lucky enough to continue my fire work in Virginia with the stewardship team. Once you catch the fire bug, it's hard to stop. Though I took a four-year hiatus to raise my family, I returned to the fire lines in 2017 at South River/Cowbane Prairie Natural Area preserves, working alongside partners like the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
As volunteer program manager, I also recruit and place trained volunteers on TNC and partner fire teams. We have 10+ qualified volunteers who get our alerts about upcoming burns across the state. Volunteers also help us prep fire lines and monitor fire effects beyond burn season. I love being a bridge between nature and people who want to get more involved in conservation.
SAMANTHA DILLON, DAVID A. TICE SCIENCE INTERN, VIRGINIA PINELANDS PROGRAM
My first experiences with controlled burning were during my first internship in Central Florida, where I assisted with a study on how fire management affected gopher tortoise movement. I first participated in burning during my 2018 AmeriCorps term with Virginia State Parks. It was pretty neat to come full circle from studying effects to working on an actual burn!
I learn so much from every person I meet and work with on a burn, but there is definitely a sisterhood among the women in fire. We are all cut from the same cloth and passionate about habitat restoration and land stewardship. Working with women in fire has been very empowering.
Ultimately, I aim to pursue a graduate degree doing research on how fire management affects reptile and amphibian communities. After that, I would love to continue working in the field and, of course, participating in burns.
ANDI ADRIANNA CLINTON, VOLUNTEER COORDINATOR, POCAHONTAS STATE PARK
During my senior year in biology at the University of Florida, I volunteered for a city park ranger named Don Musen, who took me under his wing. I started training with chainsaws and helping with pre-burn preparations such as clearing fire lines, protecting gopher tortoise burrows and attending safety briefings.
The following year, I took the local Fire Training Agency course. Since 2012, I have volunteered on at least 10 burns all across Virginia, working with DCR, the Department of Forestry and the Conservancy. I've completed beginning wildland firefighter courses, and I'm continuing my training to become a squad boss.
At a whopping 5 feet 4 inches, I am used to being the small one around most people, and I've pushed my physical limits far more than I ever imagined. Every year, I have to pass an arduous physical test of walking three miles in 45 minutes carrying 45 pounds. Every fire pushes my endurance further, and I accomplish more than I ever thought I could.
Fire has shown me that I can make a positive physical impact on the world. A week after a fire, you can see all of the beautiful native plants and wildlife springing back, just as they have adapted to do historically. Very rarely do you get to come back to a job years later, point to new wildlife habitat, and say, "I did that."