Approximately 230,000 acres of National Parks land burned in 2020. As wildfire season continues, the National Park Foundation is supporting a brand-new program this year, one that promotes all-women fire crews.
As Laurie Keaton, 23, shows us her gear, she tells us the traditional college path wasn't for her.
"I really enjoy being outside and taking care of nature, and we get to use fire as a management tool,” she said.
Keaton is one of a handful of women in Yosemite National Park who are battling fires on the frontlines, together in a women-only crew.
"I think it’s important to have. It’s a male-dominated field and that can make things a little uncomfortable. You don’t feel like you can be yourself because you’re constantly worried that they think I can’t do my job,” Keaton said.
She says it allows her to be comfortable, to show off her skills with no competition from men, without the feeling of having to prove herself. Perhaps more importantly, Keaton says, is she likes the message this group is sending.
“I feel like this program, in particular, can encourage other women, young women, to join firefighting and have a more comfortable group to do it in,” she said.
Keaton admits it's not an easy job. It's hot. It's uncomfortable. Nature isn't always friendly. But it's an exhilarating job that not enough women are doing.
“So many women are interested in wildland fire, but the reality is women make up less than 5% of fire management leadership positions at the park level, and at the national level, women make up less than 2% of the fire management leadership positions,” said Kristen Ragain, philanthropy manager at the REI Co-Op, which donated more than $250,000 to help support this program within the National Parks. “This investment is part of a really intentional and focused effort to promote diversity and equity and inclusion within the National Park Services wild and fire program, while combating effects of climate change on public lands.”
It's the first time a project like this has existed, and it's one the National Park Foundation Senior Program Manager Lisa McClure hopes is here to stay.
“Women are able to come into a park and feel safe with their counterparts, have some common identities with other female-identifying women in the crew and really see how they can stretch themselves and push themselves,” said McClure. “New skills are learned and also developing these really strong bonds with each other and with the park.”
As for Keaton, who hopes to be a role model for her younger family members, it's a way to send a message to the younger generation.
“I think it really helps kids explore what they want to do if they see themselves represented whether that’s by gender or by race,” Keaton said.