Women working in the U.S. Forest Service are coming forward to talk about sexual harassment they’ve experienced while battling forest fires in remote locations and the pervasive culture of misogyny that their workplace permits.
The Guardian interviewed a number of women working in the National Park Service and US Forest Service’s wildfire operations, among them many woman who are participating in a class action lawsuit filed in California against the fire service on behalf of female firefighters. Their stories are disturbing in themselves, but the response from supervisors show how a lack of accountability increased the danger for women employees.
In 2009, Denise Rice—a firefighter for 20 years—says a second-in-line supervisor began sexually harassing her. For two years, she endured it:
“He’d get handsy and then I’d snap and make him back off and it would stop for a while, and then it would start up again.” But in 2011, the two got into an argument and he assaulted her, poking her breasts with a letter opener, as she related in 2016 testimony before a congressional committee examining sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the forest service. The man did it “with a smile on his face in an arrogant way like he could get away with it. And I stood there in shock.”
The congressional committee that heard Rice’s story vocalized outrage—but that very year, her alleged harasser was invited to give a motivational speech to other firefighters and, as Rice would eventually discover, was allowed to retire with full benefits. Meanwhile, Rice says she is still experiencing backlash at work for speaking out.
Elisa Lopez-Crowder went from the Navy to working for the Forest Service in 2010. Initially, she felt comfortable with her team, but when a new crew-captain joined her group:
“The racist and sexist comments began almost immediately. He told me flat-out that he didn’t believe women belonged in fire,” she says. Lopez-Crowder is Mexican-American, and he would say things like “Is your skin dirty, or is that just your skin color?”
One day as the crew dug trenches, the assistant captain—annoyed that she was ignoring her comments—grabbed her by the pack, threw her to the ground and stepped on her. She and a fellow colleague reported the incident, but despite assurances from her superiors, it took a full year and a half for the man to leave the fire service.
The Forest Service has invited an outside agency to investigate harassment allegations, and opened a reporting center. Vicki Christiansen, the new U.S. Forest Service chief, told the Guardian, “We know only strong and unambiguous action will get us to where we want to be.”
You can read the full report here.