Female firefighters threaten to sue the Forest Service — again

Four decades after the first allegations of discrimination, some say little has changed.

 

For all the strides female firefighters have made in the last few decades, wildland firefighting is still, at it’s heart, a men’s club.  Only 10 percent of wildland firefighters in the U.S. are women, and across the West, recruitment and retention are ongoing challenges. Yet nowhere is this more evident than in California, where a series of lawsuits meant to get more women onto the front lines have seemingly backfired, leaving women in what some argue are worse straits than before. 

Earlier this month, a group of female Forest Service firefighters in California filed a complaint alleging discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse from men in the agency. One, an outspoken Comanche woman named Alicia Dabney, has shared lewd voicemails she says were left by male co-workers and claims a supervisor tried to rape her. Another woman, Brooke Nuñez, was demoted from her position as fire captain because, according to her supervisor, the men she oversaw would have “eat[en] her alive.”

The complaints are the first step toward a class-action lawsuit, and if it goes forward it’ll be the fourth such suit in three decades. According to Lesa Donnelly, vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, California also has the highest number of equal opportunity complaints among U.S. Department of Agriculture employees in the nation.

The heart of the problem seems to be the legacy of a 1972 lawsuit called Bernardi v. Madigan, filed by a female Forest Service researcher who said she was denied promotion because of her gender. The case was settled in 1981 with a "consent decree,” or a voluntary settlement without admission of guilt. On the surface, it seemed like a slam-dunk for equal rights: the USDA (parent agency of the Forest Service) was forced to match the gender breakdown of the civilian labor force in California by employing 43 percent women, including in leadership positions. New female hires and promotions flooded non-traditional fields.

Yet among many female firefighters who were around at the time, the phrase “consent decree” can hardly be mentioned without a shudder. Bequi Livingston, a former hotshot who’s now the Forest Service’s fire operations health and safety specialist for the Southwest, calls it a “horrid and deplorable” time: qualified men were denied promotions they deserved, while unqualified women were thrust into new positions that set them up for failure. “Men were pissed and women were pissed,” she says. “The intention was good, but the execution was bad.”

Lesa Donnelly, a claimant in the suit, says men who felt bypassed for promotions they’d been working toward for years were bitter, and sometimes expressed their resentment by harassing female colleagues. Even female firefighters who didn’t work in California were aware of the resentment-fueled harassment, and sometimes avoided the state for that very reason. So in 1995, Donnelly filed a second (followed by a third) class-action complaint.

As a result, she says, a new process for investigating and addressing complaints was implemented, sensitivity training became mandatory, and conditions improved. The first female Type One Incident Commander in the nation, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, was hired in California in 2005, and 24 percent of leadership positions on California wildland crews are now held by women — not much, but an improvement. Yet after the terms of the agreement ended in 2006, Donnelly says harassment resurfaced. She’s now leading the latest lawsuit. 

Elsewhere in the West, female firefighters I talked to acknowledge that while the field remains male-dominated in both in its numbers and culture, the sense of camaraderie can surpass gender differences. One, who asked not to be named, wrote in an email, “For the most part, men were great when I was on the line. … There were men who thought we shouldn't be there, and who wouldn't listen to my orders, but listened to men who gave them, and we always felt pressure to succeed, but I never experienced threats or sexual assault. And I never heard of anyone who did.” 

Bequi Livingston has heard otherwise. She says women’s experiences differ from one unit to the next, and in some places, biases remain strong. Rapes within crews happen, but often go unreported “either out of humiliation or because (the victim) doesn’t think the agency will support them.”

The Forest Service has responded to official allegations with statements that say they take the problem seriously and are looking into it. The agency has 180 days to investigate and potentially settle the most recent complaint before it goes to an equal opportunity court.

Livingston, however, has lost some of her faith in the efficacy of legal recourse. Instead, she’s created a boot camp in Albuquerque and Phoenix to bring more women into the field. Part of the purpose is to recruit strong, qualified women to wildland firefighting to help break down barriers. But an equally important purpose, she says, is to give women a place to share their stories and build a support network. “Let’s say they become a wildland firefighter and they experience bias, they have a trusting environment where they can come back and report it.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.