Women in wildfire: What are the reproductive health risks?

Females working in a system ‘built for men’ experience a higher rate of miscarriage and other reproductive concerns.

 

A firefighter sprays water in the area where the Dixie Fire has been burning in California on August 10, 2021.

This story originally appeared in The Fuller Project and The Guardianand is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Sofia Huston panted heavily as she pushed to close the gap between herself and the colleague in front.

Clad in bright yellow heavy-duty uniforms, hard hats and gloves, the crew trudged up “Cardiac Hill,” a grueling terrain southeast of Santa Clarita, in Los Angeles County, and so steep “you could kiss the ground in front of you.”

The 50 minute-long training session left Huston, who weighs 113 pounds and wears 45 pounds of line gear plus a 25-pound chainsaw strapped to her back, exhausted beyond anything she’d felt before. “I could feel the fatigue literally in my womb,” the 23-year-old says. 

Huston is a hotshot — a firefighter who battles wildfires. She hasn’t had a period in three years, something she attributes to the physical intensity of the job, and the brutal training sessions crews are put through.

“I know it’s because of this job. I know I’m a little bit leaner than is healthy,” she tells The Fuller Project.

“I think about how this will affect my chances of getting pregnant all the time,” she adds. “Not just because of my lack of period, but also hormonal issues — not to mention smoke inhalation, lack of sleep.”

Researchers do know that women firefighters — both volunteer and career — who make up approximately 8% of firefighters nationally, experience reproductive issues including a higher rate of miscarriage, as well as increased mental stress caused by gender discrimination. A lack of access to properly fitting gear also puts them at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. But a dearth of women in the force means few individuals to research, leaving major gaps in  knowledge about how wildfire management impacts their health, especially maternal health. These women, who are working in an already labor-intensive, frontline and dangerous industry, face an uncertain future with little knowledge about how this work could have negative effects on their own reproductive health. 

Women in Fire, an organization representing and advocating for women in the industry including hotshots, is working to promote policies around light duty for pregnant women and breastfeeding for new mothers, says its president, Amy Hanifan.

When Hanifan, operations chief at the McMinnville Fire Department in Oregon, became pregnant seven years ago, she was concerned about how her work would impact the fetus. “I certainly did feel like there was a lack of information about being pregnant and breastfeeding,” she says.

Being a hotshot is one of the most physically demanding jobs in the U.S. Unlike stationed firefighters, more than 100 hotshots crews nationally, mostly based in the Western U.S., travel throughout the country to tackle wildfires, sleeping outdoors, and working 16 hour-long shifts, for days in a row, with little time to eat or rest. 

In an increasingly hotter climate, wildfire season has grown so long it’s now known as fire year, making the job even harder. Hotshot crews work more hours now and are under extreme stress. Many hotshot crews are all-male, and those that do recruit women often have one or two on the team, often making the experience an isolating one. There are no changing or restroom facilities out in the field and women change clothes in their sleeping bags. 

Women firefighters are already a small minority. In 1999, women made up around 2% of career firefighters. More than two decades later, the total number has limped to a measly 4% — excluding volunteers — compared to 12.8% of police and 31.7% of paramedics. The share of women firefighters is even lower than in the U.S. Marine Corps, where women were legally excluded from combat roles until 2013.

Gina Allbright, a former hotshot based in Colorado, recalls nothing but good experiences during her 10-year career, but there was still little support for her to become a mother.

“When you get a dispatch, you leave and you’re gone for anywhere from 14 to 21 days out on the road,” Allbright explains. “You have two days off, then you repeat. And you do that for six months a year. You just can’t have a baby. Especially with the wildfire season getting longer, that would be impossible.”

Courtesy: Amy Hanifan, Sofia Huston and Amy Hanifan with her son, Sofia Huston, and Gina Allbright.

Knowledge of how fire impacts expectant mothers and breastfeeding women, and women’s bodies in general, is limited. 

“Women are being failed by a system that is intrinsically built around, and for, men,” says Dr. Sara Jahnke, the director and senior scientist at the National Development & Research Institutes, which focuses on public health.

“Women are being failed by a system that is intrinsically built around, and for, men.”

Since starting to research firefighter health approximately 15 years ago, Jahnke has noticed a lack of gender data. “We’d have these huge studies of 800 firefighters, but only 35 of them were women,” she says.

When Jahnke went out to collect data, she recalls being pulled aside by female firefighters concerned about the risks they were taking. “Women would ask me, ‘Do you have any research on women in the fire service?’ and the answer was always no,” she says. “We quickly saw this group had to be looked at separately.”

Research Jahnke conducted in 2018 surveyed 1,821 women in the force. The report found 27% of firefighters’ pregnancies ended in miscarriage, while rates of pre-term birth were up to 16.7%, higher than the national average of 10%.

It also noted that despite increasing attention being paid to the impact of firefighting, “little is known specific to the health of women firefighters,” and data is lacking on the impact firefighting has on maternal and child health for women who become pregnant while working.

Firefighters are regularly exposed to chemicals like carbon monoxide, ammonia and known carcinogens, which are, according to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, linked to early miscarriage, birth defects, slowed fetal growth, impeded brain development and preterm labor. 

In 2020, Jahnke received a $1.5 million grant from FEMA to explore stress, cancer risks and the effect of toxins on reproductive health among women. She is leading a three-year project at the University of Arizona to learn more about how firefighting impacts women’s bodies and hopes to both fill research gaps and raise awareness among women in the industry about the risks they take.

Jeff Burgess, a University of Arizona professor of public health, worked with Jahnke to conduct a first-of-its-kind study of firefighter breastfeeding, which showed firefighters are absorbing chemicals from the fire.

The study finds breastfeeding women should avoid nursing for 72 hours after a fire, and pregnant firefighters should be removed from the field for the entire pregnancy term.

The study’s findings, which the team will publish later this year, indicate breastfeeding women should avoid nursing for 72 hours after a fire, and pregnant firefighters should be removed from the field for the entire pregnancy term to avoid exposing their fetus to toxins. Burgess hopes his team can provide recommendations to reduce the amount of chemicals that get into lactating firefighters’ breast milk.

Hazards for female firefighters beyond maternity run the gamut. A 80 page-long document published in 2019 by the U.S. Fire Administration detailed women’s experiences in fire, including mental and physical health. A status check of 10 recommendations the agency had made in 1996 showed little progress had been made in over two decades.

Another USFA check in 2019 found female firefighters did not even have correctly fitting uniforms, noting that, typically, their “hands [are] too small to fit on the glove sizing chart.”

In Hanifan’s experience, well-fitting gear is “an issue” because uniform manufacturers tend to make clothes in men’s sizes. Hanifan’s department has begun custom-fitting its firefighters, but this is rare. Most female firefighters wear protective equipment that doesn’t fit properly — which has been linked to safety hazards associated with exposure to fires and dangerous chemicals. 

“There is no room for sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination in the fire service,” USFA fire administrator Tonya Hoover tells The Fuller Project. She added there would “always be more to do on this topic” and that USFA is committed to recruiting more women. Huston’s hotshot crew administrator did not respond to requests for comment on the work and adverse health effects described by Huston.

As for what needs to be done to initiate change, the women firefighters The Fuller Project spoke to agreed accountability needs to start at the local level, starting with cultural changes. And Jahnke stresses that change must come on all fronts—from national and international organizations, from local department chiefs, and especially from male firefighters. “The people who need to be beating the drum on this issue more than anyone else need to be the people in the majority,” she says.

For Huston, who has been fighting fires since she was 18, this season may be one of her last. Her next day off will come after a 31-day straight shift spent across Northern California and Oregon in triple-digit heat, on top of more than 200 hours of overtime.

“I know this is not sustainable. Honestly, I don’t know how much more my body can take.”

Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist based in California. She reports on conservation and environmental justice stories, and has been published in BBC, Al Jazeera, TIME, NBC, The Washington Post, and more. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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