Fire brigade women celebrate their role and their resilience

Event was promoted by the US Forest Services and had representation across five countries

March, 2022 - Speakers from five different countries: Vanessa Sidi Xerente from Brazil; Magda Liliana Reyes from Colombia; Carolyn Warden from the United States; Dolores Díaz from Ecuador and Mily Yelka Sánchez from Peru were present during the webinar. These women had something in common: the courage to work in a field mostly occupied by men and the desire to encourage women to be trained in the work they do. All of them take part in activities preventing and handling wildfires.

They shared more about the challenges, stories, and their expectations during the ‘Fire Women in South America’ event, held by USFS (United States Forest Services) and USAID to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. The event was streamed online and the webinar was part of South America Regional Fire Program (FOGO). 

FOGO was created in 2020 in response to the increase in wildfires enabling North American brigades to share experience and knowledge with specialists abroad. 

Renee Jack, a USFS brigadier for 19 years and smokejumper for seven shared details about the FOGO Program and the inclusion challenges women face in managing fires. 

FOGO works with several private and official venues, as well as universities and Indigenous communities to develop human technical resources, within the Amazon territory. It also developed courses specifically for women. 

In Brazil, the partnership with Chico Mendes of Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) and Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Resources (Ibama/Prevfogo) has resulted in different types of training, one of which focuses exclusively in indigenous women from the Xerente ethnicity. 

"It’s not easy breaking barriers. There are obstacles within patriarchal culture that dictate how we should behave, the role we have in the community, that we can’t have opinions or execute certain jobs. So we overcame mountains within the brigade. We are resisting", said Vanessa Sidi Xerente, with teary eyes as she narrated their hardships.

She is the head of Indigenous women voluntary team at Xerente brigade, in Tocantins state, located within the Amazon territory. Vanessa was one of 29 women from the ethnicity who completed the first course for women volunteers in August 2021. The curriculum consisted of environmental education, fire behavior, safety protocols, and controlled mobilization techniques. 

Milly Sánchez, a specialist in natural protected areas (SERNANP, Peru), said that less than 25% of workers in her country are women – considered a very small percentage. 

According Carolyn Warden, a specialist in fire management for USFS, the responsibility of caring for children and for the home is the key obstacle for women to participate in such leading roles at fire brigades. “We will keep building resources and courses to show what women are capable of. It’s important to develop a mentorship scenario and community – be it formal or informal – so that more women feel included and encouraged. Their abilities contribute to the overall wildfire management.” 

Repercussion - Participants were able to engage online. Vanessa Luna-Celino was among them, and called the event a “fantastic effort’. “I salute all women who are with us today - you are heroes”, she added. 

For Ana Rosa Marques, it was moving to see Vanessa Sidi Xerente speak. “I am amazed by the strength of Indigenous women. Vanessa, you are victorious.” 

USAID’s Regional Programs Deputy Director Kristin Souba was the first to speak at the event and touched on the importance of recognizing women in the field. “The lack of diversity in institutions disable multiple relationships. When it comes to women, we can integrate. Organizations can benefit from having women and diversity programs in combating fire. They bring different experiences and knowledge that help brings new perspectives to organizations and drive innovation”, Souba added. 

For closing remarks, Deana Wall from USFS highlighted the importance of partnerships like those from FOGO to educate further. “We need to help women as long as they are minority in combating and handling fires. Our countries have so much to profit from sharing successes and challenges as well as recruiting, training and retaining these women. It’s imperative to work as a team and support these networks”, she concluded.