Leading on the fireline of gender

Ali Blythe

In August 2015, a wildfire in South Lake Tahoe claimed the life of a young firefighter. Gender and leadership expert Rachel Reimer was called in to assist with the investigation.

In what came to be called the Sierra Fire, a 70-foot tree was burning at the base, its limbs hung up in the two other mountain hemlocks beside it. The “danger tree” was directly in the path of the fire crew cutting a barrier to the encroaching fire. A decision had to be made. Was it too risky to put the crew in next to the tree or could they complete the line safely?

The female mentor in charge on the fire overrode her better instincts, which were telling her not to put the crew in. Instead, she acquiesced to her male mentee, who thought they could safely proceed. Seconds before completing the fireline, the tree dislodged and fatally struck a 21-year-old firefighter.

“She was questioning herself,” says Reimer, a former initial attack crew leader with the BC Wildfire Service. “She’d had a previous colleague lose their life because of a danger tree strike and wondered if her intuition was cautioning her just because she was being emotional.”

At that stage in the working relationship between the two leaders on the fireline, the female mentor thought it would increase conflict for her to continue stating her opinion. It felt better to just agree with him, Reimer says.

When the sense-making report of the incident was complete, it would be the first in the history of the US Forest Service to name gender explicitly as a contributing factor in a fire fatality.

Masculinity and femininity: fighting fires and hidden assumptions

Reimer completed her Master of Arts in Leadership at Royal Roads in 2013 with her award-winning thesis, “The Wildfire Within: Firefighter Perspectives on Gender and Leadership in Wildland Fire.”

Reimer’s own experiences in firefighting were similar to what she heard when she spoke with hundreds of firefighters for her research. Although they said their ideal leader was someone with a well-balanced approach, their actions said something different: masculinity was seen as strength and femininity as weakness.

“If I expressed femininity as a firefighter, it was met with criticism,” says Reimer. “I was being too sensitive, I had too many feelings, or I was over-analyzing things. Alternatively, when I was more masculine, in part it was seen as more successful, but I also got pushback for being seen as ‘too hard’ as a woman, too intimidating.”

And it wasn’t just external pressure to be more stereotypically masculine.

“When I got tired, my inner voice was saying just keep going, be strong, power through. You talk to yourself along those lines of celebrating masculinity and pushing through discomfort, pushing the limits.”

Reimer says none of this is intentional.

“No one is to blame. Yes, gender discrimination is occurring and we have to be honest about what that means. In the wildfire service we are in a position of public trust. It’s very important to hold that duty and keep worker safety as a priority, including gender-based safety concerns.”

She said that throughout her research, the firefighters appreciated the opportunity to participate in conversations about their daily experiences of gender and leadership, what their ideal future was, and what actions they wanted to see. It also helped them gain awareness about their hidden assumptions about masculinity and femininity in leadership.

“I think it was actually really refreshing for them. A lot of people want to talk about these issues,” she says.

Her findings have now been shared with the BC Wildfire Service and across North America.

Fire and ice: Reimer’s role as practitioner-researcher

Reimer’s scope of work has grown organically from wildfire to the avalanche and mountain guiding field.

She has also been working as a gender and leadership consultant with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, the Canadian Avalanche Association and the Canadian Ski Guides Association. As a guide and avalanche worker herself, she says she is naturally drawn to the role of the practitioner and researcher in the same fields.

“I really enjoy doing research in communities I’m a part of and have a vested interest in. I think that research coming organically from within a community has powerful opportunities for positive change because it’s so grounded in the day-to-day lived experiences.”

She says this is different than solely university-generated research, which can sometimes unintentionally miss the mark, or follow through of suggested action steps.

“I care so deeply about the wildfire community and the guiding community that for me it’s a natural choice to continue being invested in whatever way I can be.”

Reimer has been accepted to an Australian public research university, the University of Wollongong, to complete her PhD on gender, leadership, and health and wellbeing for avalanche and guiding professionals.