She was once told not to use a lawn mower. This summer, she led an all-women’s fire crew.

14 December 2019

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USA – When Shelby Descamps was in high school, she set out to mow her family’s lawn. Her stepmother immediately directed her to use the non-motorized push mower. But Shelby wanted to try out the big gas mower. Her brother had been using it since he was 11 years old. Why couldn’t she?

But she was a girl, and she remembers being discouraged from using the equipment.

Shelby didn’t end up mowing the lawn that day.

“I was like, ‘Well, OK, never mind,’” she recalled. “I wanted to use the actual lawnmower.”

Now, the 26-year-old has mastered the ins and outs of using heavy chainsaws. She can cut and plumb fire lines. She can also confidently stand at the front lines, fighting wildland fires.

“Oh man, it is so empowering and confidence boosting,” she quipped.

This year, Shelby led an all-women’s fire crew as it protected Wyoming’s wild landscapes. The training, launched by the Montana Conservation Corps, provides women with the necessary qualifications to launch a career in wildland firefighting and conservation. This year, the All-Women’s Fire Crew training was primarily located in Wyoming, with a 19-day stint in Alaska to battle the Hadweenzic River Fire in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The experience concluded in Wyoming, west of Rock Springs, with restoration efforts — clipping away at juniper to restore habitats for vulnerable sage grouse populations.

The training aims to address gender disparities in the male-dominated firefighting and natural resources sectors. Women remain severely underrepresented in those fields.

Throughout all U.S. fire departments, women comprise just over 7 percent of firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Across all federal firefighting entities, the number of women working in fire is unclear. The Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming said it does not collect precise data on the number of female seasonal or permanent wildland firefighters.

“Diversity is important,” said Rance Neighbors, a fire management specialist at the Bureau of Land Management. “Diversity — whether that is through race, gender, culture or where you are from — any time you can add diversity to your program, federal agency or entity, then we make it better. Because everyone comes to the table with different views and ideals.”

And intentionally growing an all-women’s fire crew is just one of the ways of bringing more women to the table, he explained.

With the federal government, there are certain qualifications one needs to fight wildfires. The program passes along these required fire suppression techniques to women.

It wasn’t glamorous work. In fact, the six months in the wilderness could be grueling — tough conditions, long hours, extreme weather and few amenities.

The 11 participants are now prepared to launch into the job market and are on the hunt for positions in the firefighting or natural resources sectors. About 85 percent of previous participants go on to land a job in firefighting.

A career outdoors

Shelby grew up in central California and studied animal science in college. When looking at her career options, the adventurer wanted to be outdoors and physically active as often as she could.

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