This is the “One of Our Own” that was featured in the 2023 Winter Issue of Two More Chains.
Check out all the learning and leadership insights and noteworthy career stories in this conversation with Kelly Woods, Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and Ashleigh D’Antonio, today’s Fuels Assistant Fire Management Officer for the Santa Catalina Ranger District on the Coronado National Forest.
“Being able to carry people through their journey and help them grow.
That’s my jam. If I could come in every day and my job was to empower people
and teach them—that’s like my dream job.”
Kelly: Let’s start with giving us who you are and where you work, what you do.
Ashleigh: My current position is the Fuels AFMO on the Santa Catalina Ranger District out of Tucson on the Coronado National Forest. I’ve been here since July of 2022.
We’re also zoned with the Saguaro National Park. I don’t manage the fuels program on Saguaro. They have their own fuels group. That said, I do function as one of the Duty Officers. We have shared fire suppression duties with the Park.
Kelly: Awesome. How did you get your start in fire? Because I know you grew up in the Baltimore area, didn’t you?
Ashleigh: It was luck how I started. I was born in Baltimore City, moved to the suburbs when I was young, so I grew up in Baltimore County.
My father’s a physician. My mom was super soccer mom and also ran his practice. She was his office manager and secretary/business manager. Both my parents were very athletic, so that was encouraged and ingrained in my brother and me. Our one-week summer vacations were either to the beach in North Carolina, the Outer Banks, or to the Adirondacks.
When I was a kid I remember riding my bike along with my dad while he would run every morning. Then when my brother and I got old enough, we would go running with my parents. My grandparents had a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks where we would go hiking or run. Same thing, ride my bike alongside my dad or go running as I got older.
Those vacations were the opportunity for us to get out in the woods.
When I went away to school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I had this idea. I’d heard about the West. But I’d never been off the East Coast. I developed this notion that I wanted to live in the mountains. I was a geology major. One day I see this poster for the Student Conservation Association in the geology department. It said, “Come work for the Forest Service.” And I was like, I’m going to do that.
After my sophomore year, I applied and I got a volunteer position on a trail crew in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. Off I went to South Dakota. It was kind of a riot because at that time I had a shaved head and I didn’t shave my legs or my arm pits. I listened to hardcore music and punk rock.
When I showed up at in Hill City, South Dakota, they were like, “What are you?” It was a riot. Up to that point, this was the best summer of my life.
Because I was a volunteer, I wasn’t getting paid. But the rest of the trail crew was. My job was to just go hiking and clear trails. I was like, I can’t believe people get paid to do this!
They said, “Come back next year and we’ll pay you.” I returned the next year as a paid crew member on the trail crew. And about
midway through the summer, the trail crew ran out of funding. I switched over to the Mystic Ranger District engine crew. That’s how I got started in fire.
I was already living with fire folks in the bunkhouse. At the end of that season, they’re like, “Come back next year. You can be on the fire crew.” So I did.
So 2001 was my first full season working for the Forest Service (on the trail crew)—22 years ago. The next year, I worked on the trail crew and was transitioned to the fire crew. Then, 2003 was my first full season on the engine.
Kelly: What else have you done since then?
Ashleigh: I jumped around quite a bit. I went from the Black Hills to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico where I was on the Silver City Hotshots. Next, I was off to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington where I was on Baker River Hotshots.
Then, in 2007, I got my first permanent position on Montana’s Helena National Forest. It was a GS-5 on the Helena Ranger District. I spent time between the IA Squad and a Type 6 Engine. I was there for three years.
Next, I went to Idaho’s Payette National Forest where they were working to build a wildland fire module. I loved it and ended up staying on the Payette for 11 years. Eventually the module became a Type 1 fire module called Snowslide. I ran that module for seven years.
In January 2021, I moved to the Kaibab National Forest as the Fuels AFMO on the South Kaibab Ranger District out of Williams, Arizona. I was there for a year and a half, then lateraled down to the Coronado National Forest as the Fuels AFMO on the Santa Catalina District. That’s where I am today.
Kelly: I first got to know you through the NWCG’s Leadership Committee. How did you become a part of that group and what has that meant for you in your career?
Ashleigh: There’s two things that happened when I went to the Payette. First, I started working for Rob Morrow, my AFMO at the time. Prior to this, I’d never really had a true mentor. The opportunity to work for this man was so inspirational. I have yet to meet anyone with his integrity and his passion for teaching and for his people—and for promoting leadership studies.
Rob Morrow kind of ignited that in me.
On top of that, one day Randy Skelton, our Deputy Fire Staff at the time, who has just retired, acknowledged, “Oh, Ashleigh seems to have an interest in leadership study”—and he invited me to join the Leadership Committee.
At that time, aside from just learning to be a firefighter and trying to figure out how to be a supervisor, I was right on that transition zone of being sort of that entry level GS-5/6 into becoming the Assistant Module Leader. And a couple years later, I would become the Module Leader.
I was learning how to be a supervisor, but also learning how to lead people and teach people. To me, those things go hand-in-hand.
Kelly: And you’re still doing the Curricula Management Unit Leader for the L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service and L-280 Followership to Leadership courses?
Ashleigh: Yes. Brandon Selk is my counterpart. We got stalled a bit because of COVID, but we’re super close to having the L-280 rewrites completed and 180 will be shortly after that. And it’s been fun. I’ve been able to bring two new people into the committee to help with the curriculum and to provide some fresh ideas. Just like Randy Skelton once did for me, I’ve been able to say: “Hey, you’re awesome. You should come be part of this and help us grow.”
Kelly: That’s one thing that I have really admired about you through our time together on the Leadership Committee. I think you do such a great job of that, of pulling people in and putting the spotlight on others. It’s really admirable how you go about promoting people, and you never promote yourself.
I don’t say that just because we’re talking here today. I honestly have noted that before. If there’s credit to be given, you are pushing other people out into the light. Or if there’s opportunities to engage people, you’re super good at that, too.
Ashleigh: Thanks. I don’t do well with compliments, but thank you. I feel like everything that I’ve learned, I’ve learned from other people. So, the credit should go where credit is due. I’m glad to hear that comes through. I’ve been very fortunate to meet and work with amazing people.
Kelly: Based on your experience leading others, what are some effective ways to teach and learn specific to our workforce?
Ashleigh: I think it’s kind of threefold for me. Number one is storytelling. I love the ability for a group of folks to share experiences asking each other to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. What does that feel like? What are the stressors? What’s the human element involved? Then what are the outcomes?
I feel like when you ask people to step into someone else’s shoes or you tell an engaging story, they always come away with nuggets. I feel like that’s one of the beautiful things about staff rides, that you’re immersed in the story and if you can put yourself in those leaders’ positions and you can start analyzing what they were thinking, what they were feeling, then you can draw those comparisons to your own self and your work—or in your life. These can be really, really strong learning moments.
Number two would be putting yourself out there. Being willing to try something new and being willing to fail. As a leader or supervisor, it’s important to create a safe environment for your folks to be able to put themselves out there and try something new and give them a supportive environment.
And number three is the importance of creating a collaborative work environment. When I learned about Leader’s Intent, that was huge for me. Especially coming into a supervisory position. When I started explaining the why and what the desired end state is, I noticed it empowered my people. I could set the priorities. Here’s the mission, here are the priorities, but empower my people to make decisions on their own.
On the Snowslide crew we had managerial positions. I was like, here’s the expectation of what the saw and fuel situation should look like on the truck. And we set that expectation at the beginning of the season. Then it was like, I’m here to support you, tell me what you need, but you do it your way and I will support that, as long as we meet this end state.
We got buy-in. People came to me with ideas on how we could improve our systems and I felt like that flowed from the sense of ownership from the whole crew, not just me telling folks what to do. It created that positive synergy.
Therefore, I think that collaborative work environment and giving folks ownership was a great teaching tool.
Kelly: Very cool. There is a lot of talk about young firefighters coming in and somehow the demographics are extremely different or whatever. What have you seen as you have been in this role of a leader of young firefighters? How have you seen that manifest itself—or not?
Ashleigh: I think there’s a couple of things. It seemed like my crew members from the Snowslide module were more and more open to be vulnerable within a group. I’ll give you an example. I’m a certified yoga teacher. Thursday was our yoga day for PT. I would lead yoga. And the style of yoga I would do with the crew would typically be challenging.
We would sit in meditation for a few minutes to center ourselves, then do some breathing exercises before we started in on the posture practice. We would finish in Savasana. I would kind of talk through some of the, I guess, mindfulness practices that are often taught in yoga.
Crew members generally loved it. They didn’t balk at it. Well, at first a couple of them did, but they ended up loving it. They liked the environment of being able to share and be vulnerable with each other. That sort of “tough guy” facade that I remember from earlier in my career was gone.
It helps create more cohesive teams when we are willing to share our hard day. We talked about that a lot with the crew as far as authenticity and vulnerability and how we’ll be a stronger team together if we have each other’s backs and can be honest with each other. Instead of nobody knows why someone’s snippy that day, like, we’re all in this together.
Something else is how young folks are very attached to technology. I think the biggest impact I’ve seen with that is the inability to fill those remote geographic locations. People want to be connected. They want to be able to go out to eat or go to the bar. They need to have Internet or some access to culture and technology.
I think, culturally speaking, that’s been a really difficult transition. We’ve seen a lot of those really beautiful, cool remote duty stations close and folks coming in toward town—or they’re just chronically understaffed. I think that’s a hard sell in our current culture.
Regarding other differences with today’s young firefighters, they’re not willing to be treated like garbage. When I first started, it’s like you shut up and did what you’re told and just be happy to be here.
Nowadays, if you treat your crew members like sh*t, they’re going to leave. They’re not going to put up with it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Hopefully, this new behavior will force the “holdouts” in leadership positions to recognize their own behavior and transition to a new way of treating folks.
Kelly: That is a great perspective. It is so tough for me to see those old stations close and struggle to find staffing. Those are the most awesome places. But change is not bad. It’s just different, right?
Kelly: Can you give us two lessons you’ve learned in your career, one about culture and one about operations?
Ashleigh: This is an interesting challenge for me on the culture side. I was trying to think about lessons and culture. I think the biggest thing for me was bouncing around the country. I now realize that no matter who you’re interacting with, we probably have a lot more in common than we have differences. It’s always about seeking that common ground.
We have to do rapid team building on fire assignments. It’s about finding where we meet and not focusing on where we differ. At the same time, it’s about creating that safe space for people to share where they come from and what they believe and being accepting of that—as long as it comes from a place of respect and love.
Your crew members become your tribe. They become your family. Sure, you’re always going to have differences. But as long as there’s that love and understanding and respect, then you can move forward beyond those differences and focus on what you have in common.
Kelly: Yeah. I think there are some parallels in that leadership frame of mind—that task, purpose, end state. If you’re focused as a collective team on task, purpose, end state, that’s something that you inherently have in common right away. We want to understand this, and we want to get it done to the best of our ability, so a lot of those differences that exist don’t necessarily enter the picture.
If we are clear on the priorities and end state, don’t you think that focus helps hone that in a little bit?
Ashleigh: Absolutely. Especially thinking about in a crew setting with that shared vision. You can set that tone right off the bat—like, this is what we do and we do it together . . . Storming, forming, norming, performing. This is what performing looks like when we are all in sync.
Kelly: And we succeed together, or we fail together, right?
Ashleigh: Exactly. You can really feel it when everybody falls in sync. It’s pretty amazing. It’s fun and challenging. It’s so cool to see how much we can all get done together. Some of my favorite fire assignments have been those in which we were really clicking and everybody was feeling it. It was great.
Kelly: Yeah, that’s awesome.
How would you say that the transition from a fully operational position running crews to the fuels position you’re currently in has been?
Ashleigh: It’s been a tough transition for me. I didn’t recognize how people-oriented I was until I moved into a program where I’m mostly program and task oriented. My main job isn’t to just take care of people, it’s to get work done out on the landscape. That’s been a little bit of a struggle for me, as far as finding that same passion that I had, where every day I come into work and I was pumped. Where I was ready to do this with the crew. I loved that.
But it was a pretty steep learning curve going from a crew supervisor to more of a programmatic position. I was a qualified Burn Boss and Division Supervisor when I left the crew. I knew how to burn stuff.
I realize that’s very different now, with my main job being making sure that stuff gets burned. Being responsible for that whole planning aspect has been a more difficult transition than I thought it would be.
My day-to-day became planning and not taking care of people.
I’ve been in a fuels position for more than two years now. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my job is. And, now, I feel competent in that job. I feel like I’m more in a space where I can start teaching and mentoring.
Here on the Coronado, we’re really short on qualified Burn Bosses. So last fall I got to work with multiple Burn Boss trainees. That was really, really gratifying. Being able to carry people through that journey and help them grow. That’s my jam. If I could come in every day and my job was to empower people and teach them—that’s like my dream job.
Also, to be able to help my fellow fuels folks on the other Districts has been great. Doing tech reviews and coaching Burn Boss trainees through writing their burn plan and helping them implement their plans. I’m starting to find my flow with that.
What really gives me purpose in my job is helping people—so I’m getting there. But, in retrospect, it’s taken me a while to find that—to get there—with this job transition.
Kelly: I can definitely understand that.
Can you circle back to give us an operational lesson that you have learned?
Ashleigh: I think working smarter, not harder. I really bought into being a hotshot during that phase of my career. They want you to dig line around a patch of cold sage. So you dig a line around a patch of cold sage. You’re a crew member digging and you do what you are told.
Then I started working with Patrick Schon on Crew-4, which became Snowslide Wildland Fire Module in 2013. I’ve always known Patrick as “Parkee” because he was detailed to the Gila shots from Bandolier National Monument with the National Park Service. They all called him Parkee.
I remember when Parkee and I started working on the crew in McCall together. I still had this hotshot mentality. My line gear weighed 45 pounds and I was like, you make 18-inch handline, no matter what. You do a 30-foot saw cut, no matter what. It was just ingrained in me. These are the things you do. You just do them. You don’t question.
We went on a PT hike. Parkee is a very fit man. We dropped some folks during the hike. Parkee rounded us up and said, “All right. While we’re waiting for them, take your line gear off, hold it up over your head and start doing air squats until they show up.”
I was like, this is the time that I wish that my pack did not weigh 45 pounds!
I think Parkee was thinking this will be a fun thing to do for fitness. But, in my mind, this was a dumb thing to do—with my line gear weighing 45 pounds. I had it full of stuff that I would never need. It’s not smarter, but it’s definitely harder. From that day, I learned to outfit my line gear only with what you need—to essentially work smarter not harder.
Kelly: You just described me early in my career—the work harder not smarter style. Sometimes I wonder if part of it was just being young and dumb and trying to make sure that I always pulled my weight and demonstrated that I was there to work hard.
Ashleigh: Yes, I definitely felt that. I mean, the crew used to joke with me all the time that I had “little person” syndrome. That there’s a compensation. I know I’m never going to be the biggest, strongest, fastest, but I try to make up for it with a ridiculous work ethic. Like the person who’s always volunteering to do something. I’ll do that thing even if it’s hard!
Kelly: Having grown up on the east coast in the urban setting of Baltimore, do you think you bring different strengths and views to this job?
Ashleigh: Yeah. I think coming from an urban place, when I first started working for the Forest Service, I was just wide-eyed and super stoked because everything was new and beautiful and unbelievable. I just remember feeling so much gratitude. I was saying “I can’t believe I’m doing this” the entire time.
I just had this gratitude where I was just like, “I can’t believe I get to be here. This is unbelievable.” And then I think, like I said, I was a little bit of a weirdo for South Dakota anyway. In college I was really involved with activism and social justice. My perspective was, the more ideas the better, and I love hearing people talk.
I don’t know if this is related to growing up in more of an urban environment, but that influx of ideas and desire to hear what people have to say, hear where people are coming from, to have that appreciation, that understanding. Maybe that was nurtured by my upbringing in an urban environment.
My crew members used to joke that I would hire hardworking weirdos. And we had a good time and we had a really eclectic group of folks. I loved that. I wanted to bring an influx of strange and different ideas into the work environment. I think that’s benefited me.
Again, I don’t know if that’s just me, because I guess I was always a little bit of an outcast. I didn’t fit into the—I don’t know—societal norms in a lot of ways. And so, I always encouraged that independent thought.
Kelly: Maybe that’s what gave you the desire to leave the nest of the urban setting and try new things, right? No fear.
Ashleigh: I was super fortunate to grow up in an environment that taught me that I was my own limitation. I could achieve whatever I wanted as long as I worked hard enough for it. It was empowering.
I wanted very much to do something totally different than the examples I saw in my childhood. I wanted to get out. So I did.
If I stumbled or failed, it was my own fault, but my family was there for me when I did. Lot’s of lessons learned along the way.
Kelly: What makes you excited to stick with this career and what’s going on that makes you excited about doing it into the future?
Ashleigh: I think infusing as much teaching in my career as I can and trying to breathe that same enthusiasm and the belief that you can change things for the better that I was infused with. We have the power to make our culture better, stronger, smarter, more capable, more dynamic.
Trying to share that with people, trying to light the spark—I feel like that keeps me going. Whether it’s writing, doing the edits to L-280 and trying to imagine being that instructor. I get pumped about that. I’m like, “Yes, I love teaching that class,” because it’s really just the opportunity to be able to engage with your students and see the learning. There’s very little that beats that.
Seeing that “aha” moment on your students’ faces or on your crew members’ faces, or the pride you see after someone completes a successful training assignment and they’re like, “Ah, yeah.” That’s what keeps me going. Also getting to be in the woods, which, of course, I do a lot less of now. Which is sad. But that’s what keeps me going. As well as knowing that there are other folks out there who are as passionate as I am—who are also trying to influence a younger generation.
I think that’s it. It’s great.
Kelly: That’s awesome. What do you see as the biggest challenge that we’re facing right now? And you can frame that, as a fuels person or as broad as you want, what do you think the biggest challenge would be?
Ashleigh: I think it is recruitment and retention.
We are just chronically understaffed anymore. We can’t fill positions and there’s more fire and higher fuels targets nationwide. Not only are folks basically working “standard” 1,000-hour fire seasons now, in the wintertime they also have to go burn somewhere or burn on their Forest. Eventually, we’re going to burn people out. We already are. It doesn’t feel sustainable.
I mean, even I started to feel burnout and I loved my job. But I could feel myself just being more and more exhausted at the end of each fire season. Ultimately, I left the Snowslide crew because I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to give my crew enough of myself to meet my own standards.
I didn’t want to let my crew down. I didn’t want to be the supt. that just sits in the truck.
I think we all need more help. We’re functioning off this model of huge workloads and collateral duty expectations to support operations such as NWCG committee participation. Our governing bodies rely on folks to participate as a collateral duty to their day job that they’re already feeling overwhelmed in. We exacerbate that by just being understaffed. I worry how this is not sustainable and how we will lose folks.
Kelly: Fatigue is definitely a reality across the board. There seems to be new commitments and expectations coming all the time. It’s tiring. What is the climate in the fuels world?
Ashleigh: Last year we had the 90-day pause on prescribed fire and then the review that came out. Quite honestly, everything in that review I think is spot on. And a lot of it was best practices, but it wasn’t policy, and now it’s policy. I don’t take issue with anything they added to the burn plan template.
So it’s an interesting culture to be teaching in right now because in some ways, I’m trying to encourage folks that prescribed fire is still a thing we should do. Burn Boss is a qualification we should pursue. It’s the right thing for the landscape. This should not be something to fear.
We’re applying fire to the landscape. I can’t believe that we get to do that.
I remember my first Burn Boss assignment without any of the Forest fuels managers on scene. One of the engine captains was running holding operations and my assistant on the crew was running firing. There’s no GS9’s or above. We were running the show.
I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening. The grownups are trusting us to go put fire on the landscape. Who did we trick to make them think this is a good idea?” And of course, everything went grand, we were skilled operators, we were good. We knew what we were doing.
But it was still just that awe-inspiring moment for me where I was like, “I’ve suddenly become one of those people that is trusted to burn 300 acres of the Forest all by myself. Whoa. Very cool. Really, really cool.”
Kelly: That’s super cool. Can you think of a time when ingrained behavior was changed, not through direct experience, but through learning from others?
Ashleigh: I think a lot of my learning was experiential or watching other people and learning from them. But a big thing that’s really informed me is reading.
There have been a handful of books that I read for personal growth that I didn’t realize how applicable they would be to my work life. In that drive to make myself a healthier, happier, more balanced person, I came across books along the way that I was like, “Yeah, this is super applicable to team dynamics and leadership in particular.”
One of those books that I read, I would call this a life-changing book, was Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Brown was recommended to me and I chose that book because it’s grounded in Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote from a 1910 speech given at the Sorbonne University. That entire book is based on what does getting in the arena actually mean? That book changed my life. I bought 10 copies and handed them out to people who I thought would appreciate it, including Rob Morrow.
Brene Brown’s book helped me realize that it was my own behavior and my own motivations and fears that were holding me back. And it also gave me a lens to look at other folks. A lens that carried a lot more empathy and helped me pick up on cues. I became better at being able to enter conflict with a lot more empathy for the person who I’m disagreeing with—a lot more understanding.
To do that creates this opportunity for common ground rather than strictly a me-versus-this-person perspective.
Kelly: That really ties back to your lesson, right? Seeking the common ground instead of looking for things to push us apart. It goes hand-in-hand with that.
Ashleigh: Yeah, totally.
Kelly: You have a really cool way of looking at things. Your energy is so awesome.
I’m excited to have you tell me about one of the best shifts of your life, one of the most fun times you’ve ever had out there, doing the work that you do and that you’ve done.
Ashleigh: There’s a lot. Especially with the module. We had some of the best assignments. Just so fun. You never know what you’re going to get when you’re part of a fire module, and that’s pretty neat.
One of my favorite moments was when we were in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness where a couple of fires were burning. It was probably around 2017. We had been flown into Chamberlain Basin and hiked to a collection of fish and game structures along the river.
It was pretty great. It was just our crew in there along with the IC. We set up sprinkler systems and structure protection and came up with a firing plan.
The day I remember most on that assignment is when we were waiting, trying to be patient. We knew we were going to have to burn around this thing eventually. So the fire finally hits our trigger point. We’re like, “All right, it’s time to burn it out, let her rip.”
I lined up the crew and got a couple different firing groups and we just came together. The burnout goes beautifully, just as we planned.
And I remember we were trying to get a little bit of depth. So we brought out the Very pistol and had some of the new crew members firing off some rounds and everything worked—mission accomplished. One shift. Everything looked really good.
I head back to camp to tie-in with the IC. The crew called me on the radio and said, “Okay, we’re coming. We’re done over here, Ash. We’re coming back.” I’m like, “Okay, cool.”
I can still see them walking across the field carrying drip torches and tools. There is smoke in the air. They all have these big sh*t-eating grins on their faces. It was a good day. We had a plan. We implemented the plan. I could see the pride on the crew’s faces. Everyone was, just like, “We did that. That was rad.”
I had this great feeling in my heart. Just watching the crew walking back toward me. That was a moment that I really remember. That was a good day. I don’t know if that was the best shift ever, but it was right up there.
Kelly: That’s awesome. Yeah, it’s such a good feeling when things come together and to be in such a beautiful spot.
Ashleigh: Oh, my God. Yes.
Kelly: It’s been so fun talking to you. Thanks for the chat.