In this week’s episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Emily Browne, who has worked on wildfire prevention and suppression in Alaska with the US National Park Service. On September 27, the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission released a report with recommendations for addressing the challenges that are associated with wildfire in the United States. Browne discusses some of these recommendations, the day-to-day life of working on wildfire mitigation in the wilderness, various wildfire-mitigation strategies, the experience of working with an all-female fire crew, and the gender disparity in the US firefighting workforce.
Listen to the Podcast
- Gender disparity in the national firefighting workforce: “According to the National Fire Protection [Association], as of 2020, only 12 percent of federal wildland firefighters are women … 5 percent of park leadership roles like fire management officers are women, and that decreases as you go up to the regional or the national level.” (8:30)
- Firefighters carry a heavy load: “A typical fire assignment is 14 days, ideally getting paid for 16 hours each day, but there’s not always that much work to do. But for those 16 hours, you’re carrying 45 pounds on your back. In your pack, you have rain gear, food and water for 24 hours, your personal protective equipment, tools, emergency medical and rescue supplies, a fire shelter, and lots of other random stuff. Then, on top of that, you might be carrying things like a chainsaw, fuel, fire hose—or, worst of all is having to carry a five-gallon container of water. Those things add anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds of additional weight to carry.” (23:59)
- Increased focus on the mental health of firefighters: “Mental health issues … do come with a position like this. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to military deployment, where you’re in a high-stress, high-intensity situation, and every day, you’re told what to eat, what to wear, what to do. You just do your job and cope the best you can, and then one day, it suddenly ends, and you no longer have that structure, that purpose, and a lot of people kind of fall apart. So, that’s definitely becoming a larger conversation.” (24:01)
Top of the Stack
- On Fire: The Report of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission from the US Department of Agriculture Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission
- USAJOBS website
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
The Full Transcript
Margaret Walls: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Margaret Walls. My guest today is Emily Browne. Emily has worked for public lands management agencies on conservation, restoration, and wildfire mitigation and suppression activities. This past summer, Emily worked in Alaska for the National Park Service, where part of her time was spent on fuels reduction, like thinning the forest, creating defensible space, and doing a lot of other activities that we're going to ask her to describe in more detail in a moment—and part of her time was actually spent fighting fires.
As many of our listeners probably know, wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity in the United States. Eight of the 10 most damaging fires on record have occurred since 2017. This past summer, all of you listeners on the East Coast know that we had several days with severe air pollution from wildfires that were thousands of miles away in Canada. So, the impacts of fires are really being felt all over the place.
One more piece of backdrop I wanted to mention before we start is that we just had a big report that was released on September 28 from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was created by Congress about a year ago. That report includes a bunch of recommendations about how we should be addressing the wildfire challenge, and it increased attention to these fuel-treatment activities we're going to talk about with Emily that figure prominently in that report, along with a lot of issues related to the wildfire workforce. Since Emily was part of that workforce, I'm really looking forward to talking to her about some of the things in that report related to the workforce and her own on-the-ground experiences. Stay with us.
Hello Emily. Welcome to Resources Radio. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Emily Browne: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Margaret.
Margaret Walls: Before we dive into our conversation, we like to learn about our guests a little bit. Full disclosure, I've known Emily since she was a little girl—age eight, I think. So, I want to know a little bit about what took you from suburban Washington, DC, out to the wilds of Alaska fighting fires?
Emily Browne: I grew up here in McLean, Virginia, which is pretty close to Washington, DC, and all of the hustle and bustle there, but it's also near a lot of beautiful natural areas. As a kid, I grew up in a pretty forested neighborhood and was always in awe of the natural areas there.
I got my degree in botany from Miami University—the one in Ohio, not Florida—with the goal of working in federally protected lands, but not really sure in what capacity. Immediately after college, I worked at my local florist, but, after about a year, I realized that wasn't really what I wanted my career to be. So, I started looking for ways to get involved in conservation and resource management, and I found the American Conservation Experience, which is an AmeriCorps program, and moved out to their Sacramento location in the summer of 2022. My first project there was invasive species management of marsh grasses in Humboldt, California, and then I got to learn about trail building and maintenance in Lake Tahoe, Eldorado National Forest, and a couple other places.
But the thing that was really exciting was, in January of this year, I was part of the chainsaw crew doing fuels reduction near San Luis Obispo. That area has tons of eucalyptus trees, which are invasive transplants from Australia and New Zealand that were brought over in the late 1800s, but were abandoned, because they didn't grow quite as well for lumber here. I had the opportunity to learn how to use a chainsaw, and once I got over that initial anxiety, I realized I was really fascinated by all the techniques required to fell a tree, all of the physics and science behind it, and, honestly, the machine itself is pretty cool.
When my crew leader there, Mindy, told us she was leaving to lead an all-female chainsaw crew in Alaska who were also going to fight fire, I thought that was basically the coolest thing I'd ever heard of and knew I had to join her. She managed to actually steal three of us from that program in California to join her. Then, we went through classroom instruction and training specifically for fire with an all-female cadre of instructors, who were just incredible.
For most of the season, we did fuels reduction projects in the national parks up there, but, at the end of July, we were finally called on a fire assignment. We went up to Fairbanks, got gear and briefings, and then a couple days later, we were flying in helicopters and planes and fighting fire on the ground, which was exhilarating and rewarding and definitely one of the most challenging things I've ever done, but I loved it. So, now I'm looking for more ways to continue that career.
Margaret Walls: That's really interesting. So, you got hooked on a chainsaw, but they don't just let anybody go off in the wilderness and handle a chainsaw. Tell us about the training you had to go through, Emily, to start doing this work.
Emily Browne: Yeah, technically, anyone can go and buy a chainsaw from Home Depot, no training required, which scares me a little, because they're pretty powerful machines. But no, for professional use, you do have to do a bit of training.
When I was in California and did my first training there, we had a day of classroom instruction, where we learned about the saw itself, the engine safety features, maintenance, how to troubleshoot problems, talked about the techniques for felling a tree, and all of that.
There's actually a lot of hazard assessment and mitigation that happens before you even start cutting the tree. You have to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong as the tree falls and kind of prepare or plan for those. You also have to have a decent understanding of physics, believe it or not, when you're trying to judge the binding forces within the wood, like tension and compression and how that affects your cuts. After that classroom portion, we had a couple days of field instruction and supervision before we were able to start working on our own.
In Alaska, it was a little different, since we were going to be using saws in the context of fire, and we were working with the National Park Service. So, we took six different classes on fire behavior, reading weather patterns, firefighting techniques, incident command systems, and, of course, chainsaws. That was a lot of information all at once, but it was really cool and interesting stuff, and, even though we weren't really tested on the material, I spent a lot of time going over my notes after class ended each day, because it was just fascinating to me.
Margaret Walls: You had some physical requirements, Emily. You have to be strong to go do this. Tell us about those requirements.
Emily Browne: The other major difference in Alaska was we had to take what they call the pack test, where you walk three miles in 45 minutes with 45 pounds on your back. It's essentially a cardiac stress test to simulate what it would be like if you had to evacuate with all of your gear in case of an emergency, and everyone on our crew passed, which was amazing. We were doing physical training every morning to prepare for that and kept up with that through the rest of the season to stay in shape for fire assignments.
Margaret Walls: That's cool. Speaking of that, let's take it one step further. I'm assuming there's not a lot of women that are doing these kinds of jobs, but you were on an all-female crew. Tell us about how that came about, if you know—and what was that experience like?
Emily Browne: You're right—fire is still a pretty male-dominated industry. On our first day of training, the fire management officer for the eastern area, Jason Devcich, gave us a speech where he said the word “atrocious” no less than 10 times in reference to the gender disparity that exists in fire in the National Park Service. He shared the strategic plan they have for 2022–2024 with me, which has a section that talks about how they're trying to improve that disparity, and it's really cool to see.
According to the National Fire Protection Agency, as of 2020, only 12 percent of federal wildland firefighters are women. According to that strategic plan, 5 percent of park leadership roles like fire management officers are women, and that decreases as you go up to the regional or the national level. So, I fully agree with Jason—that is pretty atrocious—but it was empowering to be part of a program that's how we're changing that.
In the summer, I was technically working for the Student Conservation Association, and they put together the all-female fire program with the support of the National Park Service, which I think was just the second year they've done this. It was modeled after the success of a similar program in Montana and Wyoming. We had two crews; each one had one leader and four members, but the 10 of us all traveled and worked together for the summer. Each project, we'd switch up what pairs we were in, so we all got to work together and learn from each other, which was a really great system, because the program required the leaders to have previous chainsaw experience, but not necessarily the members. Five of the women on the crew had never held chainsaws before, so it was fun to kind of get to learn together and see everyone improve.
I felt like, for most of the summer, we were in our own little bubble, where I never thought about us being an all-female crew—we were just a group of people learning and working together and having fun. That bubble kind of popped when we went on our fire assignment and worked with professional crews who would have maybe one to three, if any, women on a 20-person crew. We got a lot of stares, and at some point felt like people didn't really expect much from us, just that it was nice or cute that we were trying. But most of the operations leadership on our fires were people we'd worked with earlier in the summer, so they were all really supportive, which was great.
Margaret Walls: That's so interesting. So, I mentioned that you did this fuels treatment work and you spent the first part of the summer doing that. That's pre-fire work that's designed to reduce the risk of a fire happening. Tell us what that work looks like. Some of us work in the policy area, and we talk about it, but give us the experience. What exactly were you doing?
Emily Browne: Our first project was in the summer. We were working in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park near a town there called McCarthy to re-treat a firebreak out there that had been established a couple years before. So, that firebreak is just an area with no or limited vegetation that helps stop the spread of a fire. We were going through there to clear what had grown back since the last time it had been worked on. We were out in a pretty remote area, so there was no cell service. We were camping in the tundra. We packed all our food and water, and we were constantly fighting a losing battle against swarms of huge mosquitoes. They weren't kidding about the bugs up there.
We worked in pairs. They call them “sawyer-swamper” pairs, because only one person is running the chainsaw at a time, and the other person is helping to do what they call “swamping out” the materials. Anything they cut, someone else puts into a pile, and then periodically throughout the day we'd switch. When we were in Denali National Park, we were doing similar work, but creating defensible space around some of the commercial and residential buildings in the park, which was also really cool.
Margaret Walls: So, when you're doing this thinning, you put these materials together in piles, right? The work sounds sort of painstaking and slow. Is it? How much can you get done in a given day? Can you give us a sense of that? Because I know there's a lot of this work we want to do all across the western United States, so I’m just trying to get a sense of how much you can get done in a certain amount of time.
Emily Browne: Yeah, our work schedule was an eight and six, which is eight consecutive 10-hour work days followed by six days off. I think that's a pretty sweet schedule. For the eight days we worked in McCarthy, I think we treated about six acres and built 80-something piles. For reference, those piles are about six cubic feet, so they're big enough to find when someone's coming through to burn them in the winter. That was our first project as a team, and most of the group was still learning how to use the saws, so there was more of an emphasis on learning and less on the production.
When we got to Denali, everyone was more comfortable, but the areas we were working in were a little more dense with slightly larger trees, so we were probably doing about four acres and well over 100 piles per work week. We were there a little over a month, so I think we did about 11 acres in total. I would say, on our best days, those of us with prior saw experience were probably cutting upwards of 40 trees a day, and those who are still learning were doing 20 or more but improving all the time.
Margaret Walls: That's a good sense of it. You mentioned you're putting these piles together to burn later—I think that's the first time you said that. I was in Alaska in June; I saw some of these piles, and I thought at the time those must be from some of this fuels treatment work.
One thing that occurred to me is they seem like fire hazards themselves. I asked you about this, and I guess they're not too much of a hazard? What's the situation there? Say a little bit more about this burn that's going to happen of these piles. These are the prescribed burns, I think, in part that we're talking about?
Emily Browne: Absolutely. So, of course, any sitting fuels could be considered a fire hazard, but they're constructed in such a way to limit the potential of a spread once they're burning. Our prescription or objective when we were thinning was to have anywhere from six to 10 feet of crown spacing between the trees. What that does is, if a fire passes through that area, it can't spread from crown to crown at the top of the trees; it has to drop down to the forest floor, which doesn't burn as hot or spread as fast. This really helps slow it down. When we were building our piles, we also had to be conscious of how close they were to the trees, so that when they're being burned, they don't actually burn the surrounding trees.
Another interesting point of concern is building piles on top of stumps, because the fire can actually spread down into the root system and stay there for a long time—sometimes even over the winter. We call those zombie fires, because they can come back to life and start new fires later.
Margaret Walls: Yes, I've heard about that. I think there was a New Mexico fire where that happened. So, there were no wildfires in the early part of the summer in Alaska, but then I think things changed, didn't they?
Emily Browne: Yes, fire in Alaska is pretty different from anywhere in the lower 48 states, and a lot of it has to do with being further north and the different climate and daylight hours that come with that. In one of our classes, we learned that the greatest increase in fire behavior usually happens between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m., because it's the hottest part of the day, but in Alaska, it's not until 6:00 p.m. or later due to their daylight hours in the summer.
The peak of fire season in Alaska is usually around the summer solstice, when they have 22 hours or more of sunlight, but this year, there was less than 2,000 acres burned in the entire state by that point. There were no real signs of anything starting up, so our crew had all but given up hope of getting on a fire assignment, and so had a lot of other people. So, most of the fire resources in the state had been assigned either to Canada or different fires in the lower 48 states.
But, at the end of July, it started getting hotter and drier, and there were over 2,000 lightning strikes that happened between July 24 and 25. Then, we saw dozens of small fires start popping up. Most of them were less than an acre or were in wilderness areas, so they didn't need resources to put them out; they were just in monitor status. Some that were larger or near urban areas got priority.
Margaret Walls: So they moved your crew to do this work, and I think you told me, you started on maybe one of these smaller fires. So, describe first what you were doing there specifically to do firefighting. I think you were talking about checking to make sure areas weren’t still burning, or something like that.
Emily Browne: When we got our call, we reported to the Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks, got our briefing, got our gear, and met our leadership there. Since all 10 of us were new to fire, we needed leadership with experience, so three guys from the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management crew flew up to help us out. It was great to have people with experience, but to a certain degree they were learning alongside us, because fighting fire in Alaska is pretty unique due to the topography and remoteness of a lot of areas.
A typical fire assignment is 14 days, ideally getting paid for 16 hours each day, but there's not always that much work to do. But for those 16 hours, you're carrying 45 pounds on your back. In your pack, you have rain gear, food and water for 24 hours, your personal protective equipment, tools, emergency medical and rescue supplies, a fire shelter, and lots of other random stuff. Then, on top of that, you might be carrying things like a chainsaw, fuel, fire hose—or, worst of all is having to carry a five-gallon container of water. Those things add anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds of additional weight to carry. Now, we're talking about carrying close to 90 pounds of gear, when some people on our crew barely weighed more than that.
For the first fire we were on, like you said, it was a little smaller; it was about 100 acres. We were the only crew there. We got to take a helicopter out there; it was pretty remote. We camped out there and built a lot of stuff ourselves. We ate MREs—meals ready to eat—for three meals a day, and if you've never experienced that, I'm very happy for you, but those who have know the struggle.
The fire was pretty much out by the time we got there, so we were doing what's called dry mop-up. We lined out in formations to sweep the perimeter of the fire, about 20 feet deep, to start searching for any spots of residual heat, and, if we found something, people with hand tools would start digging it out. Sometimes there were bushes or trees in the way, and then the saw teams would have to come in to cut that area out and make it more accessible. Once we finished that perimeter, the next day, we would increase it to 50 feet, then 100 feet, and we’d do that until we felt confident that nothing in that black or burned area was going to spread into the green unburned area.
The second fire was considerably larger. It was about 2,000 acres when we got there, so it was split into two different divisions, had way more crews, operations, supplies, and whatnot. It was also in somewhat of an urban area, so, like I said, there is higher priority to protect the neighborhoods nearby. It was road accessible, which means they were able to use these giant bulldozers to create what's called a dozer line, where it's a kind of firebreak. They essentially push all of the trees and vegetation out of the way to create just a line of dirt.
On our first day there, we were responsible for setting up over two miles of hose lay, so setting out fire hose hose by hose—they come in 100-foot sections. That was probably the hardest day for me, just because it involved a lot of walking back and forth. It was the heaviest stuff to carry. You could put three of those coils of hose on your hand tool, and it was probably over 50 pounds.
Once that hose was set up, we started cutting sawline, which is clearing out all the brush that would be in the way of those diggers or the hose. We did that for a couple days, cutting a little deeper each time, switching off who was on the saw teams and who was behind them with hand tools or hose. Like you said, a lot of the mop-up was honestly almost crawling on your hands and knees and feeling the ground for any spots that still had residual heat. Some of it you could see based on the color of the ash or smoke coming up, but a lot of it you didn't know until you touched it.
Margaret Walls: I want to return to what I mentioned in the introduction, Emily, about this Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and some of the things that were in that report and get your reaction to some stuff.
So, one of the things that got some attention in the report is workforce issues. They mentioned problems with recruiting and retention of these jobs and some difficult work conditions. You've described how difficult and challenging it is in Alaska—mental and physical health impacts on workers. They also talk a lot about training and the need for better and more accessible training for people. They have specific recommendations like improving pay and benefits and putting effort into increasing diversity of the workforce—your all-female crew would be part of that, I think—and also shifting more of the workforce to this pre-fire mitigation and restoration work, like fuels treatment that you were doing.
I know you're new to this career, so I don't want to put you on the spot too much, because it's a huge set of recommendations there. But I'd really like to hear your observations about what you think could help more young people like yourself get into this career—maybe young women in particular—and be inspired to kind of work in wildfire as a career. Do you have any thoughts about all those workforce and training issues?
Emily Browne: Yeah, absolutely. One thing we actually talked a little bit about this summer, since we had the Park Service partnership and a lot of mentorship happening there, was talking about the website USAJOBS, which is where all of the major federal agencies do their hiring. It is quite an intimidating place, and I think that deters some people or makes it more challenging for people who are interested or qualified to get through that application process and get to the stage where you actually get to talk to someone about it.
We did talk, as well, about the mental health issues that do come with a position like this. In a lot of ways, it's similar to military deployment, where you're in a high-stress, high-intensity situation, and every day, you're told what to eat, what to wear, what to do. You just do your job and cope the best you can, and then one day, it suddenly ends, and you no longer have that structure, that purpose, and a lot of people kind of fall apart. So, that's definitely becoming a larger conversation. Of course, the physical symptoms and lasting side effects are a little more obvious—the mental side not as much, but it's definitely something that people are starting to open the door for and have more conversations about.
Fire-mitigation strategies definitely can be a bigger priority, and some of that falls to homeowners and various levels of government. In California, they have specific laws about homeowners being required to have a certain amount of defensible space around their homes, which is, of course, safer for them and their properties, but also safer for firefighters that might need to come in and help save that.
One of the most dangerous spaces to work in wildland fire is the wildland-urban interface, which is where people and wilderness areas meet, because of all the hazards involved with building materials, improper fuel storage, maintenance properties and stuff like that. Of course, more people being in fire-prone areas can lead to new fires starting from things like campfires or dragging chains on vehicles or even silly things like gender-reveal parties. So, I think a lot of responsibility for community fire safety comes back to the people that live in the fire-prone communities, along with what measures land management agencies are taking to prevent it.
The program I was a part of was an incredible way to get a foot in the door. We had a really supportive, education-focused environment to learn in and got to meet and form connections with so many amazing people in the National Park Service and Alaska Fire Service. We got a lot of coaching on that USAJOBS hurdle and how to tailor your resume for that, so I think they really set us up for success going forward. So, I would strongly encourage any young people interested in wildland fire to look into conservation corps and especially for women to consider all-female programs.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's great. So, now that fall is here, and wildfire season is sort of over—who knows? We have fires burning all year these days in some places—but your Alaska gig is over, you've got a little break, and that's how we were so lucky to get you in here, Emily. But what's next for you? What are you going to do next?
Emily Browne: At the end of this month, I'm going to be moving to Colorado to work with the Forest Service out there and do some burn operations. So, we talked a little bit so far in this podcast about constructing burn piles, but the other end of that is eventually burning those piles. I'm going to be able to learn how they burn piles and do what they call “broadcast-prescribed burns” in other parts of that forest.
The idea is to go into an area that could be a big risk during wildfire season and to purposefully burn it ahead of time. If a wildfire were to come through that area, there would basically be no fuels or burnable materials left—you can kind of stop the spread there. Of course, it's very controlled and monitored. They're paying attention to weather forecasts and winds, there's engines or other water sources on standby, and there's a lengthy mop-up process afterwards. But I'm excited to be able to use the skills and certifications that I already have and be able to learn more.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, a different part of the whole problem. I think you told me there's a few other things that you might like to see on the horizon after that. Is there some other stuff you want to learn in this space as part of these jobs?
Emily Browne: Absolutely. I feel like I only got a tiny glimpse of the world of fire this summer, and I'm excited to learn more wherever I can. I received qualifications as a Firefighter Type 2 and a Faller 3, which is my chainsaw qualification, and both of those can go up at least one level to a Firefighter Type 1 or a Faller 2 or 1.
I really find that I enjoy chainsaw work and want to keep exploring that, so getting a higher qualification in that and being able to be a designated sawyer on a crew would be a goal of mine. I also have my wilderness first-aid certification, but I’d definitely be interested in getting a first responder or an emergency medical technician certification to feel more prepared to assist.
As for other positions in fire, I'd love to learn more about fire engines, which in wildland fire are a little different than the big red ones you'd see doing structural fire. Those tend to be kind of smaller crews—or something like a helicopter crew I find fascinating. Members on those don't fly the helicopters, but they help with cargo, helicopter maintenance, radio communications, things like that. With both of those positions, you have a decent amount of freedom during the season, because you only have to report to fires that you're needed on, so you have more time to work on new skills and certifications.
Then, the eventual goal is to make it onto a hotshot or Type 1 crew, which are the ones they send into the hottest or more complex parts of the fire. So, they have some pretty intense physical requirements to qualify. I'm certainly not ready yet, but it's something I'm working towards. Basically, I want to try a little bit of everything to see what I like and what I'm good at.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, it gives everybody a sense of all the different components in this that we need.
Okay, well, it's been great having you here. We close our podcasts, Emily, with something we call Top of the Stack, which is where we ask our guests to recommend some good content—a book, a podcast, anything. So, let me ask you, what's on the top of your stack?
Emily Browne: Currently, I'm reading a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I know is a favorite of a lot of people working in conservation. For those who don't know, Mrs. Kimmerer is Potawatomi and a professor of botany who talks about the Potawatomi beliefs about the environment that she was raised with and the academic perspective that she learned in higher education, and how there's a lot of differences between the two, but we can learn from both of them.
One that's on my reading list is The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, which is about the summer of 1910 and the largest wildfire in United States history. I think Ken Burns has a documentary on the same subject that I plan to check out, as well.
Margaret Walls: I can't believe it, I've read both of those books.
Emily Browne: Oh, perfect.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, I liked them both. I really liked The Big Burn.
Well, thank you so much, Emily, for coming on Resources Radio.
Emily Browne: Thank you for having me.
Margaret Walls: It's been great having you here, and all the best in Colorado.
Emily Browne: Thank you so much.
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