Fire Women: Female Firefighters Overcome Challenges and Occupy New Spaces

Indigenous firefighter in Brazil - Photo: Andressa Anholete/USFS
Participants exchanged experiences across the Americas

March, 2023 – The challenges of reconciling home and family care with firefighting work, occupying social spaces traditionally associated with men, and recognizing the importance of training are some of the issues discussed at the “South America Fire Women” seminar. The event, promoted by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and USAID, celebrated International Women's Day on March 8 and was broadcast over the internet. It brought together firefighters and experts from the US, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. 

“We know that it is difficult, and that it is a great challenge. We are women, we get pregnant, we have small children, we look after our home—but we have our dreams. I want to support women to help them become aware of what they can do. They may not be able to do everything they want at this stage, but their time will come,” says Anna Henderson-Yarrow, USFS Forest Fire Prevention and Education Specialist.

Anna is a mother of two children, aged 6 and 9, and she joined her first fire brigade at the age of 18. She spoke about her experience joining the brigade while she was still pregnant, and how she seeks to support other colleagues. “My goal is to inspire other women who will come after me,” she added.

Created in 2020 and in its second year, this webinar series is part of the South America Regional Fire Program. It enables local firefighters to share experiences and knowledge with experts from other countries in response to the regional increase in forest fires.

“This program was developed because many of our partners, particularly in South America and the Amazon, started reporting forest fires with strong impacts on natural resources. Now, thanks to the program's regional scope, we can face these challenges with unified strength. The approach involves sharing experiences and training, building capacity, and partnering with countries for wildfire prevention, mitigation, holistic management, and post-wildfire recovery,” explains Renee Jack, USFS Wildfire Management Specialist. She works in the area for over 19 years, previously serving as a fire brigade leader and supervisor.

USAID/Brazil Communications and Development Specialist Natália Lopez-Hurst highlighted the role of women in this partnership. “We are celebrating women's fight for equal opportunities and rights. USAID and the USFS are committed to breaking down the barriers that keep women from reaching their full potential. The FIRE program is an example of this female commitment.”

Inspiration – For Sonia Maria González Molina, from Peru's National Forestry and Wildlife Service, “communication plays a key role in giving visibility to women. It is inspiring to see these strong women at work, with messages that encourage us to maintain our efforts—not only with regard to forest fires, but in terms of their role in society," she adds. 

The head of the Emergency and Forest Fire Unit at IBAMA's Superintendence in Pernambuco, Ana Virginia de Melo, who is also an instructor at PrevFogo, spoke about women's greater interest in this area. “Women's participation has increased, albeit not at the speed we would like to see. They are occupying spaces that were previously seen as exclusive for men.”

In addition to promoting training and developing skills aimed exclusively at women and Indigenous peoples (more information here) last year the program released a technical paper on “Diversity, Inclusion, and Gender Equity in the Forest Management and Fire Prevention Program in Brazil”.

It provided recommendations and described collaborative ways to increase their inclusion in the areas of fire control and climate change (more information here). 

In Brazil, the FIRE program partnership includes the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA/PrevFogo), and the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI). 

Listen to the “OnFire” podcast with Indigenous volunteer firefighter Ana Shelley.