by Area Forester Sarah Parmelee
What is TREX? TREX is a prescribed fire training (TR) exchange (EX) held by the Nature Conservancy as part of their North American Fire Initiative. WTREX is a training exchange, for women. These two-week events bring fire practitioners together to share experience and get training. Ideally, those two weeks feature a lot of fire. This will give attendees the opportunity to apply learned techniques and advance their fire qualifications. TREXes have been held in California, Colorado, North Carolina and even Portugal. A few years ago, the suggestion for a TREX for women arose, and that is how WTREX was born. I was fortunate enough to attend the third ever WTREX this spring at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida.
Approximately 40 women, as well as several men, attended WTREX from New Mexico, California, Maine, Virginia, Canada, Costa Rica and Australia. Everyone had different levels of fire experience and different methods for fighting fire. The event was run like a real fire, using the incident command system with regular briefings on our activities for the day.
This training had three main components; classroom workshops, fire and networking:
Our classroom sessions covered topics such as public speaking, how to be an active bystander, speaking to media, and recognizing unconscious bias. We also discussed new technology for mapping and predicting fire behavior, and the ongoing fire effects research at Tall Timbers.
The second part was fire. We burned over 635 acres of grass and brush over seven days. Because we had multiple teams acting independently of each other, we could burn several tracts at the same time, or combine and burn a larger tract together. The regularity with which fire is used at Tall Timbers meant that we had well-established roads and fire breaks. In addition there were many options for where to burn depending on the weather. There is also a good system of support if a fire were to escape so that it could still be a safe learning experience for the WTREX participants.
The third and most meaningful part was the networking. Not a lot of women come to the fire world and even fewer stay. When you are one-of-a-kind in your office or on the fire line, it is easy to think that you do not belong. Being able to see so many firefighting women in one place, at the same time, was something that I did not know I needed. We had women from different career paths and walks of life. United by fire, and in this setting, we were able to have some very meaningful conversations about our place in fire and share our stories.
Some stories were really hard to hear. It is hard to hear about how hard some people have worked to keep others out of this profession because they didn’t fit their definition of a firefighter. Some of these methods for exclusion have been blatant, others more insidious, and all disappointing. The public likes to refer to firefighters as heroes and when we can’t accept someone who is capable of the job but different, we really do not deserve that accolade. Fire doesn’t care who lights it or fights it; we shouldn’t either.
At the same time, for every story of discrimination, bullying, or even abuse, there was a story of someone who reached out their hand to help. These were parents willing to watch children, supportive partners, coworkers standing up for them in small but significant ways. This is a hard job on a good day, and women have not gotten where they are in the fire community without this support.
I took a lot away from WTREX. I have a deeper appreciation for the work environment that I have at the Virginia Department of Forestry. I am very fortunate to have great coworkers and colleagues who see me as an equal. I also have a great role model with former State Forester, Secretary of Forestry and Agriculture Bettina Ring. I am incredibly fortunate to have supervisors who think I am worth sending to WTREX for two weeks in the middle of the spring fire season. We can always be better, but we are trying, and that makes a difference.
I discovered new confidence at WTREX. One of the phrases that we fell back on continually was, “if she can see it, she can be it.” I saw that I could be really good at this job if I work at it and I think owe it to myself to do that. When I hit bumps in my road, I know that I have a network of strong ladies to fall back on for advice or a friendly ear to listen.
I am extremely grateful to VDOF for letting me go to this training. I’m also grateful to the Nature Conservancy for their exceptional training staff and for Tall Timbers Research Station for allowing us to burn…and for not having any pythons.