Firefighters, it’s time we led the way on ending harassment

Allegations that the Forest Service enabled a culture of harassment were no surprise.


Lorena Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. She is a writer and wildland firefighter based out of Durango, Colorado. She is a seasonal employee of the U.S. Forest Service; her opinions in this article do not represent those of the agency.

When the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour aired an investigation titled “Rape, Harassment and Retaliation in the U.S. Forest Service” in March, reactions inside the agency ran the gamut. Many managers said they were uncertain about the future of the agency. Others felt they could no longer do their jobs because they feared accusations of harassment. Targets of harassment — both women and men — celebrated. For his part, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned days later, after acknowledging that he was also being investigated for sexual misconduct.

For women like myself, a Forest Service employee and firefighter going on 14 seasons, the exposé told me nothing new: Female firefighters have been raped, assaulted and harassed in great numbers for many years, and for the most part, the perpetrators face little or no consequences. It is the victims who are most often retaliated against. After reporting an offense, they are advised to keep the incident(s) quiet, and subsequently are often pushed out of fire crews and even out of the agency altogether.

Two engine crew members observe the Boundary Fire in Arizona in 2017.

What the PBS investigation did was shine a light on firefighting culture. Victims, perpetrators, enablers, first-year rookies, middle managers, forest supervisors, regional and national employees — all have found ourselves exposed to the nation, mostly in a compromised and ugly position.

“It is such a hostile environment,” said journalist Judy Woodruff, discussing the PBS investigation. “Why do these women go into the Forest Service in the first place?”

I am one of these women, and here is my answer: The culture of firefighting is not an inherently “hostile environment.” For every coworker that has excluded me from the “boys’ club,” 10 others have made me feel welcome and safe in a professional work environment. I have faith in these good people to change a culture that has historically enabled sexual assault and retaliation. If we do not act as harbingers of change, we are by default complicit in the problem.

The victims interviewed for the PBS investigation are just a fraction of those who remain fearfully silent or have moved on from the agency. I have little doubt of their credibility. I have never been assaulted, fortunately, but I have experienced and also witnessed harassment and discrimination. In my view, it stems from the perspective that women are, and should remain, outsiders in the industry.

I was told three years ago during a friendly conversation with a male coworker that I was only hired because I was female. It wasn’t true, but it illustrated what I fear most about this transition in our field: Women are often seen as intruders, as tokens who were only hired to meet some kind of quota. We are treated as pariahs in our professional fields, regarded as little more than sexual-harassment cases waiting to happen.

This sentiment — that working with women is playing with fire — has been hinted at by many of my colleagues throughout the years. Male firefighters at all levels feel hamstrung, suddenly censored, in what is a naturally high-risk, adrenaline-filled career that at times warrants aggressive command presence. In expressing their concerns, however, some male firefighters imply that simply maintaining an appropriate workplace environment is so difficult and out of the ordinary that it cannot possibly be done. And so, they say, they fear for their jobs.

It’s true that certain aspects of this job inherently challenge political correctness. We work in the woods, sleep on the ground, relate to each other through bathroom humor, teasing and goading. Spending an entire summer, day and night, with the same people means that professionalism inevitably slips into casual camaraderie. This is how we cope, how we bond and thrive. This gray area, where our professional lives become personal, is both rewarding and dangerous — prime territory for interpersonal chaos. But firefighter culture has to try to enter the 21st century; it can no longer hide fearfully behind patriarchal tradition. Times have changed, and fire culture needs to catch up.

Firefighters spending time together in New Mexico's Gila National Forest in 2012.

Fortunately, change is happening, albeit slowly. For every supervisor like the one who hazed me 17 years ago, dozens since have shown respect and professionalism. The pressure is now on these good supervisors to act as pathfinders who will guide us into a new era, rather than behave like rabbits frozen in a spotlight. This is especially true for fire management officers, captains, superintendents and other program managers who are the creators of crew culture. They must use their influence to make it clear that women are welcome in the agency and that there is no room for sexual harassment, assault or discrimination.

That said, it is the responsibility of all firefighters to stop enabling problems by ignoring them. If we lead with this ethic in mind, others will follow. It may be hard to do the right thing — to protect those in need and drive out firefighters not worthy of the title — but aren’t we strong enough to handle it?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • Colorado's Sustainable Food and Water Team is pursuing a future where people's food and water needs are met in a way that supports local economies,...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to help with fundraising campaigns. Strong candidates will have experience administering development programs, communicating with donors, and working...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival,
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...