Outdoor World

Women fighting forest fires say abuse is rife but men often go unpunished

Women in the US Forest Service love what they do. But they likewise describe a toxic male context that tolerates, and even promotes, their harassers


Denice Rice handles things for herself. A more than 20 -year veteran of the US Forest Service’s wildfire functionings, she’s spent weeks at a time operating flames deep in the wilderness. So she supposed she could manage when, in 2009, her new second-in-line superintendent started committing her unwanted attention.” He immediately befriended me and started mentoring me, and from there it just got weird ,” she remembers.

For two years she said nothing.” He’d get handsy and then I’d snap and make him back up and it would stop for a while, and then it would start up again .” But in 2011, the two got into an contention and he assaulted her, poking her breasts with a letter opener, as she related in 2016 witnes before a congressional committee analyzing sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the forest service. The humankind did it” with a smile on his face in an arrogant style like he could get away with it. And I stood there in shock .”

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The highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, responded with a grand statement:” We want to do everything in our power to surround you with some protection .”

Yet that same time the man who allegedly assaulted her had been invited to give a motivational speech to firefighters. And Rice mentions she continues to pay the price for having spoken up about sexual harassment at the forest service, a federal agency that manages 190 m acres of ground. Her experiences are by no means unique.

When Tony Tooke, the manager of the forest service, resigned last month while being investigated for having inappropriate relationships with subordinates, a former wood service employee named Lesa Donnelly was dismayed- but not surprised- that he had risen so far up the ranks.” It’s basic Kindergarten 101, there has to be accountability for people to take this seriously ,” said Donnelly, who retired from the forest service in 2002 and has spent her retirement helping hundreds of women in public lands bureaux navigate the sexual harassment objection process.

The occurrence of serial abusers rising through the ranks is so familiar to some women in federal land agencies that they have a word for it:” The media friendly version is a’ disciplinary advertising ‘. We call it fuck up to move up ,” says Jonel Wagoner, who worked for the forest service from 1980 until retiring in 2016.

Wagoner and Rice are two of eight female plaintiffs who are represented by Donnelly and are bringing a class action suit against the forest service on behalf of female firefighters in California. They both say speaking out was ruinous to their jobs, and that the men involved in these complaints were not subject to meaningful disciplinary action. Which might help explain why a human like Tooke could make it to the very top of the agency.

The National Park Service is also in the midst of a harassment crisis, with major investigations at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canaveral National Seashore, and several other parks. A 2017 survey sent out to employees of the park service found that 38.7% of employees had experienced some sort of harassment in the preceding 12 months.

Occasionally, harassers even get rehired. In 2014, the park service issued an apologetic memo after an employee accused of repeated incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct on river journeys in the Grand Canyon was brought back.

Firefighters tackle a major flame near Ojai, California, in 2017. A class-action lawsuit is being brought on behalf of female firefighters in the government. Photo: David McNew/ Getty Images

The work in those organizations that supervise America’s parks and groves is distinctive. It’s often remote, which attains it attractive to people like Rice. She says that she adoration that her undertaking takes place in the lumbers. But a hypermasculine culture imbues some firefighting crews, where simply about 15% are wives. And the remoteness can intend girls are sometimes left alone with predatory humankinds, well outside of any cellphone’s signal. That’s what happened to Elizabeth, who asked to use a pseudonym to safeguard her identity because she still works in firefighting.

Whenever Elizabeth was alone in her group’s remote Pacific north-west bunkhouse- where her phone rarely worked- her crew’s burn management officer would find an excuse to visit.

” I told my foreman that I didn’t want to be alone with this guy; that he creeps me out ,” recollects Elizabeth.” He laughter dismissively and said,’ oh, that’s just how he is .’ They thought it was really funny that I was creeped out by this guy .”

A few a few weeks later, Elizabeth was alone in the bunkhouse and the officer let himself in. He detected her in the kitchen and tried to block her from leaving. Elizabeth’s gut told her that something bad was about to happen and she operated outside.” But if I’d have shown even two seconds of hesitation, I know it would have gone differently ,” she said.

A colleague made a complaint on Elizabeth’s behalf, which the Guardian demonstrated with an official informed about the situation but who did not have permission to speak on the issue. Her harasser quitted before he could be fired, according to Elizabeth’s supervisor. The latter produces a permanent mark on a federal employment record, while the former carries no consequences.

‘The racism and sexism began instantly’

Women who report harassment often have no idea how their objection has been acted upon. Elisa Lopez-Crowder started working in fire for the forest serving in 2010. She was a navy veteran, and a knew how to navigate male-dominated workforces. The first few weeks on the job, things went well. But then a new deputy captain joined the crew.” The racist and sexist commentaries began almost immediately. He told me flat-out that he didn’t believe women belonged in burn ,” she says. Lopez-Crowder is Mexican-American, and he would say things like” Is your skin dirty, or is that merely your skin color ?”

One day, while the crew was digging trenches, the aide captain began taunting Lopez-Crowder.” After a while I stopped paying attention to what he was saying because it bothered me so much ,” so he intensified his abuse by grabbing Lopez-Crowder by her pack, shoving her to the ground, and pinning her there with his foot. She was shocked and humiliated. A colleague reported the incident, and Lopez-Crowder filed a formal complaint.

A year later, Lopez-Crowder and several other women who reported harassment met with the then agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, and the chief of the forest service, Tom Tidwell, who” said he’d personally taken care of my trouble “. Lopez-Crowder texted her former flame captain to support the man had been removed.” He told,’ No, that’s not true, I permitted his time sheet two days ago .'”

Vilsack reiterated in a later meet that her trouble had being handled, and Lopez-Crowder had the unenviable undertaking of correcting him.

” It took a year and a half[ from the time she reported] for him to be terminated ,” she told, but does not know if he was fired or only vacated. And she may never know. Because personnels files are considered confidential and not subject to public-records requests, getting information on the outcome of an investigation is near impossible.

Denice Rice:’ I love my job. I’m not leaving .’ Photograph: Fred Greaves

The agency tells changes are coming. The forest service announced that the committee plans to use independent investigators in all of its harassment claims and has opened a harassment-reporting middle.” We know only strong and unambiguous activity will get us to where we want to be ,” the new wood service chief, Vicki Christiansen, said in a statement to the Guardian.

For some ladies, these measures will come too late. Wagoner and Donnelly say they faced reprisal and spent their last few years in the forest service with menial responsibilities.

As for Rice, in the 2016 congressional hearing, a senior official testified that her abuser was able to retire, keeping his full benefits. The official insisted that the man was not paid for a motivational speech he was asked to give, earlier that year, to a forest service hotshot crew.

” The guy should not only have been fired, he should have been arrested !” shouted Gary Palmer, a Republican congressman from Alabama.

Still, Rice is gearing up for the summer fire season, and will retain fighting blazes as long as she can. On the working day she spoke to the Guardian, she was wearing a 45 -pound weight vest and power-hiking up a mountainside, getting ready for her physical fitness tests. She struck a note of defiance.” I desire my job. I’m good at my job. I’m not leaving. They’re going to have to look at me every day .”

To share your narrative with the Guardian, contact publiclands @theguardian. com

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ context/ 2018/ may/ 02/ female-firefighters-us-forest-service-sexual-harassment-abuse-claims

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