US Forest Service and historically Black colleges unite to boost diversity in wildland firefighting

by Andrew Wright
diversity in wildland firefighting

US Forest Service and Historically Black Colleges Collaborate to Enhance Diversity in Wildland Firefighting

Taylor Mohead, a recent graduate from Tuskegee University, never imagined herself fighting forest fires. Yet, as an intern with the U.S. Forest Service, she finds herself trekking through the forests of Hazel Green, Alabama, in fire gear, braving the sweltering heat. Mohead is one of twenty students from historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs) participating in a prescribed burn demonstration as part of an apprenticeship program. Under the supervision of instructors, they clear paths, ignite fires, and ensure the embers are extinguished. The program aims to equip them with the necessary credentials to pursue a career in wildland firefighting.

Although spending her summer break engaged in this grueling work, Mohead embraces the experience. As a woman of color and of small stature, she finds it inspiring to challenge stereotypes and break barriers. Mohead is not alone in her journey. The on-site fire academy is part of the 1890 Land Grant Institution Wildland Fire Consortium, a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and a group of HBCUs, including Florida A&M University, Southern University in Louisiana, Tuskegee University, and Alabama A&M University.

This partnership arises as the United States faces an escalating wildfire season due to climate change while grappling with the underrepresentation of minorities in forestry and firefighting. Although this year’s number of wildfires is below the ten-year average, the hot and dry conditions are heightening the risk, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The consortium was conceived during the pandemic to address a “mission critical area of the Forest Service.” Stephanie Love, the USDA Forest Service’s national diversity student programs manager and an Alabama A&M alum, explains that the initiative, which officially launched in 2021, leverages the strong agricultural programs at these HBCUs. By aligning efforts, the consortium aims to create a pipeline of students pursuing education in natural resources, forestry, and fire-related fields.

The goal is to provide each student with a solid foundation to pursue various career paths in forestry, ecology, agriculture, or firefighting. This effort builds upon the longstanding relationship between Alabama A&M and the Forest Service. In 1993, a USDA Forest Service Center of Excellence in Forestry was established at the university to prepare students for careers with the agency. Additionally, Alabama A&M formed a nationally accredited firefighting team, the FireDawgs, in 2009. When classes are not in session, the FireDawgs are dispatched to wildfires and burn operations nationwide.

The collaborative programs resulting from the Alabama-Forest Service partnership have been responsible for training two-thirds of Black foresters in the federal agency, notes Love, who was part of the inaugural FireDawgs squad. The data collected by the agency indicates a 20% increase in diversity among its wildland firefighters over the past decade. The Forest Service, which employs approximately 13,000 individuals, including firefighters and support staff, saw a decline in white employees from 86% to 66% between July 2010 and July 2022.

Despite this progress, Black fire personnel remain at around 1.3%, with Black women constituting roughly half a percent. Hispanic staff have increased by 10%, while Native Americans/Alaska Natives and Asians make up approximately 3% and 1%, respectively. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders represent less than 1%.

One reason for the lack of applicants from diverse backgrounds is the limited awareness and encouragement received by potential candidates. Guidance counselors and recruiters often fail to promote firefighting as a viable career option, explains Terry Baker, CEO of the Society of American Foresters and its first Black leader. Additionally, there is a misconception that outdoor work is less technical and requires fewer skills.

Once students decide to pursue forestry or related fields, the challenge becomes retaining them. To address this, the Forest Service and HBCUs ensure the availability of mentorship programs, scholarships, and internships. Bradley Massey, a junior at Alabama A&M and president of the school’s forestry club, describes how the university reignited his passion. After losing focus and working in retail, he enrolled at Alabama A&M with the intention of making the most of his college experience. Massey joined the FireDawgs and has since achieved significant milestones, such as passing firefighter work capacity tests and attending conferences with fire professionals and students from across the country.

Baker emphasizes the increasing need for firefighters as wildfires intensify due to climate change and drought. To confront these challenges, inclusivity is crucial. Baker points out that Black firefighters often feel isolated and overwhelmed when they enter predominantly white communities or lack fellow crew members of color. He recalls instances where he was the first Black person that some individuals had ever encountered in real life.

For the current group of students, meeting HBCU alumni who have become fire or forestry professionals has been reassuring. They find strength in the camaraderie and support they experience when surrounded by classmates who share their background. Mohead expresses her determination, stating that having someone who understands and has overcome similar obstacles provides encouragement and motivates her to persist.

As wildfires continue to pose a significant threat, the need to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workforce in firefighting becomes paramount. By partnering with HBCUs, the U.S. Forest Service aims to inspire and empower students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in this critical field, ensuring a resilient and inclusive future for wildland firefighting.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about diversity in wildland firefighting

What is the goal of the collaboration between the US Forest Service and historically Black colleges?

The goal of the collaboration is to boost diversity in wildland firefighting and address the underrepresentation of minorities in the field. By partnering with historically Black colleges, the US Forest Service aims to create a pipeline of students pursuing education in natural resources, forestry, and fire-related fields.

How does the apprenticeship program work?

The apprenticeship program provides students from historically Black colleges or universities with the opportunity to participate in a prescribed burn demonstration. Under instructors’ supervision, they learn essential skills such as clearing paths, lighting fires, and ensuring proper extinguishing. The program aims to give them the necessary credentials to pursue a career in wildland firefighting.

Why is diversity important in wildland firefighting?

Diversity is important in wildland firefighting to ensure a resilient and inclusive workforce. With the increasing threat of wildfires due to climate change, it is crucial to have representation from various backgrounds and perspectives. A diverse workforce brings different skills, experiences, and ideas to tackle the challenges posed by wildfires effectively.

How has the representation of minorities in the US Forest Service changed over the years?

According to data collected by the agency, there has been a 20% increase in diversity among wildland firefighters in the past decade. However, there is still underrepresentation of minorities in the field. Black fire personnel remain around 1.3%, and Black women make up only about half a percent. Efforts are being made to improve these numbers and create a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

What are some of the challenges faced in increasing diversity in wildland firefighting?

One of the challenges is the lack of awareness and encouragement among potential candidates from diverse backgrounds. Guidance counselors and recruiters often overlook firefighting as a viable career option for underrepresented individuals. There is also a misconception that outdoor work is less technical and requires fewer skills. Retaining diverse talent is another challenge, which is being addressed through mentorship programs, scholarships, and internships.

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NatureLover123 July 8, 2023 - 2:50 am

i love how they’re giving students from HBCUs a chance to participate in the apprenticeship program. its imporant to bring diversity to wildland firefighting cuz different perspectives and experiences can make a big difference in tackling wildfires.

FirefighterFan27 July 8, 2023 - 6:12 am

wow this is gr8! its so awesome that the US Forest service and HBCUs are workin 2gether to boost diversity in firefighting. we need more ppl from different backgrounds in this field. go team!

BurninDesire July 8, 2023 - 6:14 am

as someone who’s passionate about firefighting, i think it’s great that they’re creating a pipeline for students to pursue careers in wildland firefighting. we need more firefighters who understand the unique challenges we face. keep up the good work!

FireChaser87 July 8, 2023 - 8:52 am

the lack of awareness about firefighting as a career option for underrepresented individuals is a real issue. we need to change that perception and show that firefighting is technical, skilled work. kudos to the Forest Service and HBCUs for tackling this problem head-on!

TreeHugger22 July 8, 2023 - 12:01 pm

it’s about time we see more diversity in forestry and firefighting. climate change is makin wildfires worse, so we need a strong and inclusive workforce to handle the challenges. kudos to the Forest Service and the HBCUs for makin this happen!


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