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Women wildland firefighters battle for equitable treatment in new documentary

A still of two firefighters in a smoky landscape.
Holly Tuckett
Women wildland firefighters battle blazes and inequality while engendering change in Holly Tuckett’s new documentary “Anchor Point.”

“Anchor Point” — In wildland firefighting parlance, it’s a safe place from which to engage a fire.

It’s also the name of a new documentary directed and produced by Utah filmmaker Holly Tuckett. In it, Tuckett chronicles the struggles women fighting wildfire on public lands have encountered working alongside male counterparts.

KUER’s Pamela McCall recently spoke with Tuckett. Her interview starts with a moment from the film. A firefighter — Lacey England — describes what the culture is like.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Lacey England: There is harassment, assault, intimidation, [and a] hostile work environment — those are very real things. And I know people who have experienced very awful things. And that's not the entire story for every person, everywhere, all the time. It's not only about the individual, because we've created a culture where those behaviors are normalized. And we are all contributing to it, whether or not we are obviously perpetrating that kind of harm.

Pamela McCall:  Holly Tuckett, you heard that story from so many women while you were making this documentary. Another woman you focus on in ‘Anchor Point’ is pioneering wildland firefighter Kelly Martin. She testified before Congress in 2016 and spoke about being victimized by a sexual predator early in her career. Talk about her work to change the culture.

Holly Tuckett: Kelly really spent most of her career working mainly with men, and she just knew that she was in a position to be the one to speak up. She was senior, she was closer to retirement, and a lot of the women that had things that had happened to them just were so in the middle of their career that it would have been career suicide. And so she really took it to heart that it was her time to speak out. She's since been very involved with WTREX, which is the ‘Women-in-fire Prescribed Training Exchange, which is featured in the film and giving mentorship to women who want to move up in the ranks. And most of these firefighters are seasonal, so they are only working, nine, maybe 10 months out of the year, if they're lucky. And so in order to work that full year round position, you have to level up your skills. And if there are no women in positions like Kelly was, like an incident commander or a burn boss, they are not able to move up.

PM: Is the culture changing?

HT: Slowly. Yes, I would say that these women that have started this training exchange for women, as well as Kelly speaking out. Through word of mouth, many firefighters have seen the film and it enabled us to actually be approached by the U.S. Forest Service. We actually did training with 150 firefighters and supervisors within the Forest Service. So they are pursuing an educational license with us in order to make it part of their training.

PM: Drought and climate change are impacting the frequency of wildfires. What's at stake if we don't change the culture? If we don't have skilled women at a higher level and on the front lines alongside their male colleagues?

HT: I think we're losing out on a diverse perspective. A lot of women have a very nurturing part to themselves about the way that they approach fire and fire ecology, and their thinking is a little bit less aggressive and more tactical sometimes I think, than men. You know, Kelly was instrumental at Yosemite National Park, changing the way that they approach their fire program.. Because of her, they changed from a fire suppression model to a fire appreciation model, almost I would like to say — where they let natural fires burn within the confines of Yosemite National Park. And that wasn't the case before she got there. And so having somebody who understands the benefits of ecological fire and what it can do for the forests, I think would really help mitigate the strength and intensity of some of these wildfires that we're seeing. Losing those diverse voices by not having women as a part of the culture of fire — we need all the voices there.

Anchor Point is screening as part of Park City Film’s ‘Made in Utah’ series Thursday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Park City Library.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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