Firefighters It’s Time We Lead the Way on Ending Harassment

Whitewater-Baldy Complex, Gila National Forest, New Mexico, May, 2012

While searching for a photo for this post, I found Kari Greer’s fire photo website here. This site is worth checking out, as there are many amazing and wonderful fire photos.

I’ve been behind on my blog duties, partially due to discovering that backups of my computer stuff did not automatically include bookmarks from Chrome. Lesson learned. Anyway, here goes…
This is a piece from High Country News by Lorena Williams a writer and firefighter out of Durango, Colorado.

“It is such a hostile environment,” said journalist Judy Woodruff, discussing the PBS investigation. “Why do these women go into the Forest Service in the first place?”

I am one of these women, and here is my answer: The culture of firefighting is not an inherently “hostile environment.” For every coworker that has excluded me from the “boys’ club,” 10 others have made me feel welcome and safe in a professional work environment. I have faith in these good people to change a culture that has historically enabled sexual assault and retaliation. If we do not act as harbingers of change, we are by default complicit in the problem.

The victims interviewed for the PBS investigation are just a fraction of those who remain fearfully silent or have moved on from the agency. I have little doubt of their credibility. I have never been assaulted, fortunately, but I have experienced and also witnessed harassment and discrimination. In my view, it stems from the perspective that women are, and should remain, outsiders in the industry.


I was told three years ago during a friendly conversation with a male coworker that I was only hired because I was female. It wasn’t true, but it illustrated what I fear most about this transition in our field: Women are often seen as intruders, as tokens who were only hired to meet some kind of quota. We are treated as pariahs in our professional fields, regarded as little more than sexual-harassment cases waiting to happen.

This sentiment — that working with women is playing with fire — has been hinted at by many of my colleagues throughout the years. Male firefighters at all levels feel hamstrung, suddenly censored, in what is a naturally high-risk, adrenaline-filled career that at times warrants aggressive command presence. In expressing their concerns, however, some male firefighters imply that simply maintaining an appropriate workplace environment is so difficult and out of the ordinary that it cannot possibly be done. And so, they say, they fear for their jobs.

It’s true that certain aspects of this job inherently challenge political correctness. We work in the woods, sleep on the ground, relate to each other through bathroom humor, teasing and goading. Spending an entire summer, day and night, with the same people means that professionalism inevitably slips into casual camaraderie. This is how we cope, how we bond and thrive. This gray area, where our professional lives become personal, is both rewarding and dangerous — prime territory for interpersonal chaos. But firefighter culture has to try to enter the 21st century; it can no longer hide fearfully behind patriarchal tradition. Times have changed, and fire culture needs to catch up.

7 thoughts on “Firefighters It’s Time We Lead the Way on Ending Harassment”

  1. I’m beginning to wonder what the root source is for these males’ behaviour. I was never brought up by my parents to even think about mistreating female colleagues, let alone harass/assault them. What life experiences resulted in the conclusion that this conduct is okay?

    • Maybe it is not “life experiences” but rather “corporate experiences” that is key here. I Googled up an interesting perspective from Christopher Metzler as to why sexual harassment training and prevention most often fail:

      Interestingly the failure most often is a result of not recognizing that the problem can not be addressed in isolation, but rather must be addressed as part of reorganizing organizational culture. Andy Stahl hints at part of the problem in a comment below. Metzler’s ideas would help craft organizational reform. But is anybody in power really ready for a transformational journey?

    • FWIW, here’s my editorial from the The Forestry Source, April 2018:

      Editor’s Notebook

      The Highest Standard of Conduct

      By Steve Wilent
      The revelations in the March 1 article by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), “They Reported Sexual Harassment. Then the Retaliation Began” (, might be thought of as a wildfire. This firestorm will cool down, as fires always do, but it won’t be declared out anytime soon, and a shift in the winds may lead to new blowups and spot fires. Wildfires in forests often are beneficial when they clear out decadent vegetation, reduce accumulations of fuel, and spur new growth. The fire of gender, racial, and sexual discrimination and harassment will lead to positive change, too, but the process will be painful for everyone involved.

      I hope you read the PBS article and subsequent articles, such as “Forest Service Must Change How It Investigates Sexual Misconduct, Report Says” (, which describes a report recently released by the USDA Office of the Inspector General: “The report said that the Forest Service primarily uses internal investigators to perform sexual misconduct investigations, and recommended that the agency use independent contract investigators instead.” Another article to consider: “New Female Forest Service Head Launches Review of Harassment, Sexual Misconduct in the Agency” (, which recounts an all-employee phone conference led by interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.

      “We’ve had some hard truths look at us,” Christiansen said during the call. “We’ve known about these, but they’re staring right at us, and clearly, we’re not doing enough. Let me state again, we cannot achieve the work of our mission without the safe, respectful, rewarding, resilient work environment that our colleagues and the American people require and deserve. In order to be successful in our work, to care for the land and serve the American people, we must hold ourselves and our agency accountable to the highest standard of conduct. We will not tolerate behavior that makes our colleagues or the people in our communities unsafe in any way, including harassment, bullying, assault, and retaliation.”

      Christiansen and Acting Associate Chief Lenise Lago outlined a 30-day plan, called “Stand Up For Each Other,” that will include “listening sessions” with employees across the country about harassment and retaliation, conducted by senior agency staffers, counselors, and civil rights and communications officers. The agency also aims to create a heat map for “geospatially referencing where harassment complaints are coming from, so we’ll be able to identify where there seems to be a problem … and get resources to that location.”

      I asked Sharon Friedman, who retired after 33 years with the Forest Service (including Region 5, the Washington Office, and the research and development arm), for her take on the conference call. She is chair of the Rocky Mountaineers, an association of retirees and employees of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.

      “I think that they are right about the fact that it is an ongoing problem and will take an ongoing focus and pressure through time, and I think they are the right people and this is the right time to address it,” she said.

      In a thoughtful post on her blog, A New Century of Forest Planning, Friedman outlines several steps that the agency might take to better tackle the issue. For example, she suggests that the Forest Service ought to look at how other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the US military, are dealing with discrimination and harassment, to “see what they are doing and how it has worked—or not.” See

      Other Voices, Other Agencies
      In addition to news reports on the complaints and lawsuits about gender discrimination and sexual harassment, some women have weighed in with very personal observations. See, for example, Allie Weill’s commentary on page 16 in this edition of The Forestry Source: “Women of Wildfire: Revolution, Superheroes, and the Case for Diversity in Fire Management.” Also worth reading: “A Firestorm of Misogyny,” by Julia Petersen in Evergreen Magazine (, and an essay by Susan Marsh in Mountain Journal, “#MeToo in a Culture of Good Old Boys” ( Marsh retired from the Forest Service in 2010 after 30 years of service.

      If you’ve been following the news in recent months, you know that the Forest Service isn’t the only agency, company, or organization wrestling with discrimination and harassment. The problem is pervasive throughout society. But for the moment, the spotlight is on the Forest Service, and many employees, retirees, and others will be watching closely as the agency implements the “Stand Up For Each Other” initiative and, more important, as it takes concrete actions to address the issues.

      In my view, the best of all the reactions to an incident of harassment was a powerful speech last year by US Air Force lieutenant general Jay Silveria, superintendent of the US Air Force Academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After racial slurs were written on the dormitory doors of five black students at the school, General Silveria called a meeting of students and staff—more than 5,500 service members of all ranks—and he encouraged them to use their phones to record the address and to share it.

      “So, just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

      I encourage you to watch the video of General Silveria’s impassioned speech ( Heat maps and listening sessions are important, but I’d like to see the leaders of the Forest Service and other agencies, companies, and organizations make similar unequivocal statements: This is our institution, and we demand the highest standard of conduct. If you can’t meet that standard, or if you can’t or won’t stand up for your colleagues when they are subjected to discrimination or misconduct, then get out.

  2. Wildland firefighting has a Marine Corps-style machismo that believes women do not have the strength and steely character necessary to succeed. It is to protect the “integrity” of their firefighting profession that misogynists drum women out.

    Lasting reform requires, among other things, de-militarizing the war on fire. Managing, not fighting, fire will be easier said than done. But, I suspect it’ll be a damn sight easier than making war female-friendly.

  3. Thanks, Sharon. Lorena Williams has expressed some of the most thoughtful and insightful comments I have read on this issue thus far.

  4. Hellooo – I’m really glad that Sharon posted this but damn disappointed that we are still stuck in this discussion in 2018! I mean, what gives? I was on the Yellowstone NP helitack crew in 1976 when the first woman was hired for that crew. Karen was a great friend and co-worker and outworked some of the guys on crew. Seems like the fire ranks would have progressed more in 40 years.
    In fact they have, because I know women in fire staff officer and similar positions in USFS.
    The other day a female friend mentioned that she’s applied for a summer fire job w/ WA. DNR; I told her about the issues in USFS and suggested she be cautious.
    In my mind, the FS needs to clean house in the fire organization – NOW! There’s no room for the types of behavior that some guys are getting away with or trying to. If the agency has to spend some years rebuilding its fire skill base then that’s the price of moving forward and making women equals on the line, overhead teams, etc.

  5. Nobody will step up and admit that the problem is we expect decent society/office behavior among a bunch of males that are transient, part-time fire during the summer, ski bum in the winter types that heretofore would have either been working the carnival, migrating back and forth thrashing wheat or been told to join the Army by their local sessions judge or go to prison. It could be put to an end, but that would require all the permanent GS-11s through 15s being held accountable including not only the fire staff but district rangers, forest sups, etc. Ain’t gonna happen in the pass the buck, avoid responsibility culture that is USFS leadership.


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