An instructor leads a group of five students in a fire suppression exercise during hands-on training on the field. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

JUNTURA – Women in wildland firefighting are pushing for diversity and inclusion in a field dominated by men.

In groups of five, 25 women clad in flame-resistant yellow shirts, green pants, hardhats and blue backpacks recently worked diligently with their Pulaskis and shovels during a fire suppression exercise in the high desert, the sage and Western junipers peppered with ponderosa.

They were on their second weekend of training as part of the “Women in Wildland Fire” program, organized by the Vale District Bureau of Land Management to train more women.

“We use this as a recruitment tool,” said Cassandra Fleckenstein, manager for the Vale district’s dispatch center. 

She said the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are working to increase diversity and the number of women in fire crews.

Students from across the country participate in the wildland fire program, which included a mix of classroom training at the BLM guard station in Juntura and a full day of hands-on instruction at a remote site 30-40 minutes away.

Over the course of the two weekends, the women were paid to fulfill several entry-level requirements to work as a firefighters.

Fleckenstein, one of the main organizers of the boot camp, said the Vale BLM worked hard to hire a diverse group of instructors to help the students learn about the possibilities of wildland firefighting. She said all the instructors are experienced firefighters who work in various roles in wildland fire, from engine boss to hand crew to “hotshot.” 

Brandie Froberg, a student studying fire science at Columbia Basin College, said she wanted to learn more about wildland firefighting since her school only teaches about structural firefighting.

“I’m just exploring different areas of firefighting right now,” she said. “I’ve just been learning about structure fires in class, and wildland fire is so different. I know that there are many ways to work in fire.”

Froberg said the hands-on session was an invaluable experience, since it was her first time working directly with fire. 

“I didn’t realize before how hot it was to work and be so close to fire,” said Froberg. “The radiant heat you get in wildland fire surprised me.”

Some students said they applied for the fire boot camp because they come from families that have worked in wildland firefighting.

“It’s been great,” said Jennifer Sandoval, an Ontario native and a social sciences student at Portland State University. “I wanted to check it out for myself and see if I liked fire.” 

Although her college major is not related to firefighting, Sandoval said her father and brother have worked in wildland firefighting.

“I didn’t expect it to be like the rookie camp that people do when they get hired for a job,” she said. “I got a lot more information and gained more skills than I expected.”

Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

Class members enjoy a light moment during the rigorous training. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

Trainees douse embers in a wildland fire exercise held recently near Juntura. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)