Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Updates via NPR: Biden orders a security review after the assassination attempt on Trump

An all women’s fire crew in Western Colorado clears a path for more women in wildland firefighting

Meghan Patrick (left) and Aryah Brown clear excess brush and gambol from a hillside in the Crystal River Valley with Mt. Sopris in the background.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Meghan Patrick (left) and Aryah Brown clear excess brush and gambol from a hillside in the Crystal River Valley with Mt. Sopris in the background.

As fire season gets underway in Colorado, local, state, and federal agencies are working hard to recruit wildland firefighters to respond to and prevent dangerous blazes.

While it’s a difficult job, many firefighters say it’s rewarding to do work that keeps them outdoors and makes a positive difference.

Wildland firefighting is a male-dominated career, but there’s a crew in Western Colorado that’s looking to change that.

On Friday, May 31, Raechelle Seil is getting ready to start her work day, unpacking her chainsaw and other tools next to an impressive pile of branches and brush.

“I was working an office job before this, and I quickly found out I hate office jobs,” Seil said. “So I started looking for just a little more outdoors… I knew I wanted to do something physical. I want to do something outside.”

Each member of the crew carries a large pack with everything they might need for a job that day. That includes tools, food, water, and protective gear.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Each member of the crew carries a large pack with everything they might need for a job that day. That includes tools, food, water, and protective gear.

Instead of being stuck in an office, she’s hiking through rugged terrain, creating fire breaks, and keeping neighborhoods safe from natural disasters. She’s an assistant lead on a crew of wildland firefighters — one made up entirely of women.

This developmental crew is the result of a partnership between the Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC), the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service designed to get more women into wildland fire jobs. The Forest Service estimates that up to 87% of its wildland firefighters are men.

Lathan Johnson is an assistant fire manager for the BLM and the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit. He helps coordinate the women’s fire crew, and said the program has a dual benefit: federal agencies get important fuels reduction work done before the height of fire season and their workforce starts to look a little more like society as a whole.

“Any time that I'm working, whether it's on wildfire, or whether it's on something we're doing here in the office, having that diversity in gender, I think, has always made a better team,” he said in an interview with Aspen Public Radio.

When the program is complete, he said, all of the women will be certified to fight wildfires for federal agencies, and have completed all the training they need to get in the field.

Raechelle Seil uses her chainsaw to remove oak gambol from the Red Dog Wildland Urban Interface project area.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Raechelle Seil uses her chainsaw to remove oak gambol from the Red Dog Wildland Urban Interface project area.

For the past several weeks, this crew has been clearing gambol oak and other plants from the ridge behind the Red Dog subdivision, tucked in the shadow of Mount Sopris. They gather the vegetation into large piles, which will be burnt later this year.

“When you have fresh vegetation or fresh soil, basically if there's any fire that's going on or anything like that, it's a lot harder for that fire to jump that, because it's not dry, it's not leafy, it's not anything like that,” Seil said to explain the fire prevention strategy behind the team’s work.

But it has other benefits, beyond reducing the risk of wildfire in a residential area: it helps to maintain wildlife corridors through the area, and makes the remaining plants healthier.

Raechelle Seil, Ellie Zaher, and Sea Bierker pose for a photo on their last day of work as a team on May 31, 2024.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Raechelle Seil, Ellie Zaher, and Sea Bierker pose for a photo on their last day of work as a team on May 31, 2024.

While Ellie Zaher helped Seil clear some of the vegetation uphill of the burn pile, she said when the team isn’t in the field, they’re getting mentorship, such as help with their resumes and advice on what seasonal jobs they should apply for.

She expressed that it’s especially meaningful when it’s coming from women who’ve been working in fire for a lot longer than the trainees have.

“They're all so supportive and they want more women in fire,” she said. “They're so happy that we have this program and they each keep showing us, like, what we should pack and what we should expect. I just appreciate that so much because not everybody is willing to do that.”

The burn pile got a lot bigger in the hour or so the team had been working there, with one of them crunching it down with her full weight, every so often.

Raechelle Siles and Frances Brubaker work together to compact their crew’s burn pile. This winter, other firefighting crews will come and burn all of the piles they constructed this summer to get rid of vegetation that could start fires.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Raechelle Siles and Frances Brubaker work together to compact their crew’s burn pile. This winter, other firefighting crews will come and burn all of the piles they constructed this summer to get rid of vegetation that could start fires.

It’s difficult work that requires no small amount of physical fitness: the women work long days carrying heavy loads across rugged terrain, sometimes creating their own trails to do so. They often camp near their job sites, instead of getting to sleep in beds.

The crew hikes up to their work area, on a trail they cut themselves during the early days of the project.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
The crew hikes up to their work area, on a trail they cut themselves during the early days of the project.

Eva Heller, another assistant crew lead, explained that it’s rewarding to see the results of their labor, and makes the hard parts of the job worth it.

“I feel like I'm actually making a difference out here and doing something meaningful, which is like so, so awesome,” she said. “And that's probably my favorite part of the job, apart from working with all of these wonderful people.”

Frances Brubaker helps Meghan Patrick close up her pack after helping her get her loppers out. The two have been crewmates since February.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Frances Brubaker helps Meghan Patrick close up her pack after helping her get her loppers out. The two have been crewmates since February.

After the final day of the crew working together, they’ll disperse and join different traditional firefighting crews across Western Colorado.

The WCCC, the BLM, and the Forest Service estimate that about 80% of the women who’ve participated in the program in years past go on to have jobs in fire for at least the next season, and many go on to have careers in natural resources.

In exit interviews and feedback for program managers, they often attribute part of their success to getting the opportunity to learn the job in a welcoming environment. It’s something Raechelle Seil is grateful for.

The Women’s Fire Crew poses in front of Mt. Sopris on its last day of work on May 31, 2024. Back row (from left): Kelcie Bassett, Kallyn Allen, Frances Brubaker, Meghan Patrick, Aryah Brown, Sea Bierker; Bottom row (from left): Ellie Zaher, Raechelle Seil, Eva Heller
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Women’s Fire Crew poses in front of Mt. Sopris on its last day of work on May 31, 2024. Back row (from left): Kelcie Bassett, Kallyn Allen, Frances Brubaker, Meghan Patrick, Aryah Brown, Sea Bierker; Bottom row (from left): Ellie Zaher, Raechelle Seil, Eva Heller

“Using all of these like bigger tools and all this machinery and stuff like that and not feeling judged and not feeling like you're inferior,” she said. “It's very, very nice to feel actually supported and cared for.”

Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio

Caroline Llanes
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.