Hot, Dry, and Burning
While Minnesota prepares for a wetter future, other areas of the country repeatedly face calamitous wildfires. UMN student Amital Shaver spent the summer in Alaska learning to fight them with an all-female crew.
The Colorado River is shrinking. Lake Mead, its reservoir—one of the country’s two largest—is so low that soon it may not have enough water for the 40 million people who rely on it.
The Colorado isn’t the only waterway that’s turning to dust, attributed to drought exacerbated by climate change. According to the government’s U.S. Geological Survey, “Climate change has further altered the natural pattern of droughts, making them more frequent, longer, and more severe. Since 2000, the western United States is experiencing some of the driest conditions on record.” And as this drying acreage expands in parts of the country, the risk for wildfires increases.
It’s a worldwide phenomenon. In Europe this summer, wildfires were so severe they burned the equivalent of one-fifth of Belgium. In California this fall, the Mosquito fire surpassed the McKinney fire as the state’s largest, encompassing 63,000 acres; the McKinney hit 60,000. The largest recorded California wildfire, known as the August Complex, burned over a million acres in 2020; the second, the Dixie in July 2021, burned nearly as much. In fact, the eight largest fires recorded in California have occurred since 2017.
Over half of the 3 million acres that burned in the U.S. this summer were in Alaska. More of the Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska burned during the summer of 2022 than burned collectively in the same area between 1950 and 2021.
Bristol Bay is where University of Minnesota sophomore Amital Shaver spent her summer learning to fight wildland fires. Shaver was part of a newly launched, all-women conservation corps crew hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). After a successful pilot program in 2021 in Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks, this past summer NPS sent an all-woman crew, including Shaver, to Alaska.
Only 5 percent of wildland firefighters are women, and only 2 percent are in leadership, says Missy Forder, a national fire planner for NPS. Forder, who has been fighting fires with NPS in 25 different states for more than 20 years, says increasing gender and ethnic diversity is a key goal for NPS and the impetus behind the all-women crew program. “The best groups and best teams I’ve been with have been diverse groups where there’s gender parity … tackling the complex problems of climate change and longer, hotter, drier fire seasons,” says Forder.
The new program intends to expose women to fire management. Forder believes, “If they can see it, they can be it. Meeting women like myself and others with long careers will, over the long term, encourage these women to pursue careers in wildland fire and eventually move up the ranks to leadership positions.” She’s one of only eight women in leadership in wildland fire with NPS. As the “disaster seasons” increase, says Forder, the U.S. needs more firefighters.
“We’re finding now that fire season
doesn’t really have a start or end," she says.
"And, as seasons get drier and hotter and
longer, we can see fire in different places
than we’ve traditionally seen it.”
Hacking it with a pack test
Shaver didn’t know much about fire before applying for the NPS program, but the biochemistry major knew she wanted to be outdoors and work with her hands. “Being from the Midwest, fire is not a really big part of the culture at all,” says Shaver, who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “I think for folks out West, that’s like much more a front-of-mind thing. There is still fire work in the Midwest, but it’s not as prevalent, so this was totally new to me.”
It was the concept of an all-women crew that drew Shaver in and then hooked her. “The female mentors and instructors that we were so lucky to have access to, like Missy [Forder] … absolutely incredible. Just to see such powerful women role models in fire who made these careers who stood their ground and didn’t have to sacrifice being themselves.”
It was a busy summer for Shaver and the
six other college students on her all-woman crew: students from all over the U.S. including New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, and
California. It began with wilderness training
at Chugach State Park, south of Anchorage,
followed by conservation work skills training, work safety, and trail building. Then the
group was off to King Salmon, Alaska, and
Bristol Bay, working with NPS to get their
chainsaw certification and earn their “red
cards.” Officially known as an Incident Qualification Card, the certification approves an
individual to perform required jobs when
responding to an incident. Eventually, the
group settled in Katmai National Park and
Preserve where they felled their first trees
and prepared for their Work Capacity Test,
or “pack test,” required for certification to
go out on fire assignment, says Shaver. The
pack test requires carrying a 45-pound pack
for three miles in under 45 minutes.
While Shaver says their training was “very job specific,” it also provided a wide lens into the science behind the work that’s done to mitigate wildland fires: everything from how fire ecology works to the financial logistics of woodland firefighting. “A lot of us on the crew had a science background. And, while you’re not applying it day to day when you’re running a chainsaw, understanding the bigger picture of the work that you’re doing and how fire fits into the disturbance regime of an area— or how cutting down trees or creating this shaded field break is affecting even the wildlife— [is important],” she says.
Shaver’s crew worked on the
back end of the Slathtouka fire
around Allakaket, Alaska. “We
were fighting fires, but that
doesn’t mean you’re always
‘runnin’ and gunnin’, the fire’s
comin,’” says Shaver. They were
creating strategies to stop
fires. In Alaska, because of the
permafrost, “Most of the time
you’re laying wet line with hoses
to wet the fuels, wetting the
ground, and then cutting fuel breaks. So,
cutting down trees and shrubs instead of
digging down to the soil,” Shaver explains.
A culture shift
Shaver calls her all-women firefighting experience “invaluable,” and says she’s excited about the culture shift, “where women don’t have to prove themselves five times more than any guy just because they’re a woman. Or have to work five times harder, run that much faster, be able to lift that much more, just because they’re a woman.
“Having this fire experience under our
belts we can, with humility still, walk in
with more confidence and be able to say,
‘Yeah, I know how to do this, and I’m just
as capable as anyone else. I’m gonna work
hard as hell and I deserve to be here just
as much as anyone else.’”
In the end, Shaver—like Forder two decades before—was bitten by the firebug. She’s already started applying for fire jobs for next summer. While she says biochemistry is “a scientific worldview, there’s a curiosity that comes with that precision, and a humility that comes with that. I think now my eyes have been opened to the world of seasonal work, especially fire, and the challenge that comes with that. I want to try another season on a hand crew.
“I feel that my college summers are for me to explore new fields,” she adds. “To just like, really strike out and go out on a limb and see what’s out there.”
Cari Shane is a freelance journalist who lives
and works in Washington, D.C. Her work can be
found in the Washington Post Magazine, National
Geographic, Scientific American, and more.