A three-part series by Racheal Reimer
In the Winter 2017 issue of Two More Chains, firefighter Bre Orcasitas discussed wildland fire culture. In her blog, https://theevolvingnomad.com/2016/11/20/fire-culture/, she wrote, “Hearing ‘don’t F… it up’ is a sarcastic yet serious show of support for whatever small task you have taken on.” This blog series digs deeper into how and why that phrase has meaning, and examines wildland fire culture and learning.
The big experiment
The biggest experiment in creating a learning environment in wildland fire that I have ever been involved in is the Northern California Women’s TREX that happened in October 2016.
The Women’s TREX was developed out of the regular TREX program. TREX, or the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, is a program run by The Nature Conservancy (nature.org) that connects wildland firefighters, prescribed fire practitioners, and land management and research personnel in training events that use prescribed fire on the landscape. The events are run like a fire, with their own IMT, fire camp, and org chart. The focus is on burning, live fire operational training for everyone from burn bosses to firefighter type 2’s. People bring their taskbooks, fill roles as trainees, and gain experience to fill the gaps in their career progression. TREX is all about learning.
The Women’s TREX went a step further by defining a space that was purposively shame-free, safe-to-fail, and open to conversations not just about skills but also about what’s it like to be perceived as the weak link, and the kinds of pressure to perform that that feeling generates.
In 2015, Monique Hein, formerly of The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, attended the North Carolina TREX (NCTREX). Monique was housed in cabins with the other female TREX attendees, a total of fourteen women. “By day five…the nights got later, as we cracked open beers and shared struggles in our careers…I started to hear a common theme.” Women shared their experience of working in fire at their home bases. “Their confidence was low, they felt like they were behind on their skills and leadership development. The women also felt invisible, alone, and not supported…They didn’t know where to go from here, and many of them thought why even stay in a career where they did not feel wanted.”
These women were trying to put their fingers on something in the culture that just didn’t seem right. Being perceived as the weak link hurts. Trying to outwork that fear of failing can be exhausting. They had a proposed solution: “How cool would it be if we had an all-women’s TREX?”
The Nature Conservancy said “yes” and a location in Northern California was identified thanks to Lenya Quinn-Davidson, who facilitates the Northern California TREX. A female IMT was formed and the first ever Women’s TREX was planned for October 2016.
So, if a safe space is made for learning where shame and blame and the fear of failure are consciously kept at bay, is it truly a safe space for everyone? What happens when the minority (women) suddenly becomes the majority?
Men are invited to the Women’s TREX. The organizers realized that this was an opportunity for a bigger learning experiment, and purposefully reversed the gender ratios. So, while a long waitlist of hopeful attendees grew, they accepted 90% female applicants and 10% male, socially engineering the Women’s TREX to be the exact opposite of what wildland firefighters experience on a daily basis.
“It’s going to be two weeks of just male bashing, probably, and I’m going to end up being the whipping boy for…all men in fire.” Casey, a male participant at the Women’s TREX, anticipated the worst. But, he wanted to learn, and saw this as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up – “even if that meant having to take the lashings.”
History is full of examples of victims-turned-bullies.
And it is also full of examples of people who quietly and compassionately work for cultural change in a way that doesn’t mean identifying an “enemy”.
It turned out there were no “lashings.” Casey said, “We all learned from each other and it turned out that I wasn’t the whipping boy…And I felt that the ladies were maybe almost compassionate towards me…I don’t know if that was because they know how it feels to be a minority of the group, or what the deal was.” From day one the focus was on learning–tactics, skills, leadership, and also about the broader wildland fire culture. Maybe this kind of experiment would shift the culture a bit, and reveal something none of us had seen before.
And can you guess the one thing that came to the surface that men and women both seem to share in wildland fire? Shame, fear of failure, and vulnerability.
If we need to create a ‘safe space’ in order to learn, what does that say about our everyday work environment?
The answers were tough to hear, and came from all genders. For men and women at the WTREX, the crux issue seemed to be wildland fire’s cultural problem with vulnerability. It’s the relationship between fear of failure and the need to shame yourself and others to avoid failing.
Instead of having a level-headed acceptance that vulnerability is required for learning, there seems to be a cultural belief in wildland fire that vulnerability is weakness. And it also seems like weakness is equated with femininity. Women more often get treated like the weak link. But men feel it too.
“I feel like if I show…weakness, people will kind of – will correlate that with more of a feminine trait and because of that, you could be looked at as weak or probably not the best fire fighter out there,” Casey paused, and he continued– people make an assumption that “you’re not tough enough maybe to do some of the stuff that the job requires.” If you’re a male person and you show weakness, then you get shamed too. And the shaming may look like being associated with being female, or feminine.
One woman explained, “everything you do is under a microscope and it can be very easy to start wavering and maybe have confidence issues.” For women, that fear and shame is closer to the surface, but they’re not the only ones who have to deal with it. It affects everyone.
The WTREX participants experienced an environment that was the literal opposite of this. People were being vulnerable, learning, and asking questions. This was not only tolerated but encouraged. “It was really great…and also really difficult in a lot of ways for me. There was a lot of experiences that I’ve had in almost ten years of fire that I have…normalized.” Katie reflected for a moment on her experiences as a career firefighter. “I spent so much time kind of trying to neutralize a lot of things that I’d gone through…just trying to not process that…and all of a sudden there were like thirty more examples.” How hard we’ve all been trying to be tough, to prove our worth, hit a lot of us smack in the face.
“It felt really vulnerable to me because…I have in the past prided myself on kind of having a strong exterior and being able to be strong for myself and the people around me.” For Katie and many others, men included, the WTREX was an opportunity to soften that exterior, and to recognize that others share her experiences.
“The [Women’s] TREX kind of transformed me,” said one woman. “There was the burning side of things and then it became this really open environment and space for people…to share that experience…and have that empathy.”