Women firefighters from around the world train in Virginia’s forest
Leaves crunch underfoot as Rebecca Wilson steps into the forest of the Piney Grove Preserve.
She takes a deep whiff and sigh before describing her love of this land, owned by The Nature Conservancy outside Wakefield.
“It is one of the most beautiful places in my mind in Virginia,” said Wilson, Eastern fire manager with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation Natural Heritage Program.
“It looks right. The sound of the wind through the trees sounds right. It just feels very peaceful and settled here.”
Before European settlement, more than a million acres of longleaf pine trees spanned Virginia. Settlers cut down many of them and cleared the land for agriculture.
Virginia conservationists, including Wilson, have been working to revive the landscape through controlled burning that spurs growth.
But for a couple weeks the Piney Grove Preserve is also a training ground specifically geared for female firefighters.
A few dozen women from 14 states and four other nations are assembled at the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange this month to learn best practices for prescribed burns.
Wilson has worked in the field of wildland firefighting for decades in the Commonwealth. She was here at Piney Grove in 1999 when officials conducted the first modern prescribed burn.
The training is supported by a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior.
The event – the fifth ever but first in Virginia – is also about building a community with shared experiences, said lead organizer Lenya Quinn-Davidson, who’s a fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Women make up only about 10% of the national wildland firefighting force.
Many are the only woman or transgender person in their division and often feel they have to represent their gender, Quinn-Davidson said. She said she wasn't sure what to expect during the first training exchange.
“We were really surprised by how powerful it was,” Quinn-Davidson said. “It could’ve just been another training event that just had more women. But instead there was this level of camaraderie that we just didn’t anticipate. And it was a pretty emotional event.”
One participant this year is Sarah Gibson, a firefighter from California’s Sonoma County.
She said she was drawn to the training to learn how to be a better mentor for young women interested in the field.
She herself sought out the advice of other women leaders when she became a firefighter. She’d been a paramedic two decades ago when her ambulance was caught in a fire.
“I instinctively jumped out and helped protect the engine and the ambulance,” she said. “Afterward the firefighters there said, ‘You should be a firefighter.’ (I was) completely fascinated by the fire behavior that I was witnessing in California even 20 years ago.”
She changed her exercise regimen to gain more strength and learned to use appropriate tools and heavy equipment.
Though she loved immersing herself in the new world, it was also challenging “not really seeing a lot of people like you.”
Fire is an inherently dangerous and high-adrenaline line of work that tends to draw a lot of men, said Wilson of the state conservation department.
“That leads sometimes to an ego problem,” she said. “There’s not a lot of vulnerability in the firefighting community.”
The training allows a safe space for women to be vulnerable and ask questions, Wilson said.
The group started the two-week training by learning about the local ecosystem, which includes loblolly pine trees and growing populations of the longleaf pine and red-cockaded woodpecker.
The group will also conduct prescribed burns of dozens of acres around the forest.