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Women's fire conference in Banff aims to break down barriers in male-dominated industry

"I've had lots of candid conversations with women that are really struggling, that face misogyny, sexism, discrimination, unfortunately harassment and assault, who want to leave the service."

BANFF – Jane Park is a leader in wildfire management but she’s faced her share of adversity in the male-dominated industry.

As one of only a handful of female type 1 incident commanders in North America, and the only one in Parks Canada, Park works passionately to raise awareness of gender and diversity issues within the federal agency and the broader wildland fire community.

“I've had lots of candid conversations with women that are really struggling, that face misogyny, sexism, discrimination, unfortunately harassment and assault, who want to leave the service,” said Park, who has been with Parks Canada for 21 years and has been Banff’s fire and vegetation specialist since 2011.

“If it wasn’t for having other women to lean on in those situations, they would probably leave – and some have.”

That’s why Park is one of the driving forces behind Banff National Park planning and hosting a Women-in-Fire Training Exchange May 1-12.  Known as WTREX, it is an intensive 12-day training exchange that combines practical live-fire training with indoor learning and discussion to advance participants’ qualifications and experience in wildland fire operations.

Specifically, WTREX is an opportunity to engage participants of all different genders, ethnic, and racial backgrounds to explore the growing role of women in fire management.

An inter-agency event, it also serves as a training ground to enhance their understanding of incident command system, fire ecology, communications and outreach, leadership, prescribed fire planning and more.

“This is about people who have not historically had opportunities, having opportunities, and who deserve to be there,” said Park.

“It’s designed to provide opportunities for people that get lost in the shuffle when they represent so few within the industry.”

While Park has been in her position as fire and vegetation management specialist since 2011, women still constitute a relatively small proportion of the workforce, filling roughly 10 per cent of wildland fire positions and even fewer in leadership roles.

In recent years, there has been an increased effort to recruit women into fire positions, yet social and cultural challenges remain.

Park said new recruits often find the male-dominant fire management system to be dismissive of female perspectives and strengths, even as its increasing complexity requires fresh approaches and insights.

“Still within the wildland fire community, anecdotally, it’s still only about 10 per cent women in the field,” she said.

Banff’s WTREX conference will include operational training such as structural protection, and protecting communities, and will involve work with Banff’s fire department as well.

An important part of the conference will focus on Indigenous cultural fire practices. Weather permitting, participants will also take part in a prescribed burn at Compound Meadows adjacent to the Banff townsite.

“We’re going to be looking at all kinds of things – specific training, about mental health and gender diversity and inclusion,” said Park.

So far, approximately 35 participants from around the world are registered for the event, including from Canada, United States, Australia, Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia.

On top of that, there are about 15 to 20 planning team members and special guest speakers, among them two prominent Banff women – Mayor Corrie DiManno and Senator Karen Sorensen – who speak on May 6 about women in leadership.

“I’m looking forward to sharing some of our experiences and challenges as leaders as well as connecting with the folks there and learning more about how they navigate their worlds,” said DiManno.

“I’m so thrilled women from around the world will be convening in Banff to learn about wildland fire management.”

DiManno said Banff has a strong history of women breaking down barriers in male-dominated fields and she hopes participants find energy from that determined spirit.

“As an example, you don’t have to look further than one of the organizers of this event – Jane Park. She is a local legend and a role model to so many,” she said.

“She has long been a trailblazer in her field – not only because of her work, but also because of how she has made this career more accessible and inclusive. I am grateful she has created a path for so many women to follow.”

Park started her career with Parks Canada in 2002 as a park warden for Banff National Park and has worked in various parks from Vuntut National Park, the traditional territory of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in the Yukon to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, the traditional territory of the Haida Nation on the northwest coast of BC.

Her work in Banff primarily focuses on the reintroduction of fire onto the landscape, wildfire and fuel management, non-native and invasive vegetation management, and ecosystem restoration. She is also a type 1 incident commander on one of five Parks Canada national incident management teams – the only female in this role.

As an incident commander, she is responsible for all aspects of emergency response, including developing incident objectives, managing incident operations, setting priorities, defining the organization of the incident management team, and the overall incident action plan.

More recently, Park went to Bolivia in January as part of a Global Affairs Canada technical assistance partnership to help the Bolivian government brace for an increase in wildfires due to climate change. In 2020 and 2021, about 1.6 million hectares of forest were burned in that country.

“That was an amazing experience,” she said.

Spending time in the great outdoors and her love for the environment was what drew Park to her career path. She went to school for a bachelor’s degree in environmental science followed by a master’s degree in forest ecology before landing a job as a park warden in Banff in 2002.

“I was already living in Banff as kind of a ski bum during grad school,” she said.

Within her first year as a park warden, she naturally steered towards the fire and vegetation stream, initially studying mountain pine beetle dynamics when the beetle population was beginning to explode.

“I quickly went into fire management, and Ian Pengelly, who is my predecessor in this position, was a really great mentor,” she said.

“He had me involved in prescribed fires,” she said, noting she was part of the team for the large-scale prescribed burn on the Fairholme benchlands in 2003 and is now preparing a follow-up burn 20 years later – this fall. “That burn really kind of piqued my interest in fire ecology and implementation of fire.”

From there, Park began working on incident management teams in entry-level roles before taking a short hiatus from the mountains to work with Indigenous communities in the Arctic.

“That’s where I think I learned a lot of important lessons about Indigenous relations and working with local Indigenous nations,” she said.

After Pengelly retired, Park was hoping to land his job and was the successful candidate in 2011.

“I was really kind of hoping that I could try to fill his giant shoes,” she said.

While she has proven herself a dominant force, it was not an easy path though.

“They see a person of colour and woman and expect that maybe I’ve gotten there because of my demographics and not because of my education and experience,” she said.

“They just saw what was on the outside and assumed that that's how I got my job.”

And that still continues today.

“You know, I’d like to say that it’s way better, but there’s still a long ways to go,” she said.

“That said, I’ve got a lot of really amazing supportive colleagues, lots of male allies in a male-dominated industry that I would not be here without.”

Park and other female colleagues face constant questions about their right to be in this field of work.

“The opportunities that people like me have been given, how few of us there are, it’s very difficult,” she said. “It gets lonely.”

What made it tougher was there were few female mentors in fire management for Park to seek guidance, aside from Tanya Letcher – a fire behaviour analyst formerly with Parks Canada and now with Alberta Forestry, Parks and Tourism who has a 25-year career in this industry – whom Park holds in high esteem.

In turn, Park hopes her two decades of experience and extensive knowledge in this male-dominated field will help inspire other women working in the fire management industry and encourage them against shying away from senior roles.

“I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing or what it is, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to think about yourself in those terms, I guess, but at the same time, I’ve had enough conversations at this point with people who have told me that they can see a career in this profession because of where I’m at,” she said.

“That’s super meaningful to me. I do think that there’s maybe more of an onus on those of us that are here, whether we’re people of colour or Indigenous firefighters or women or members of other communities, that we are there for each other because it can be fairly lonely when you represent so little of the organization.”

There is a lengthy list of women with impressive credentials – too many to name – who are planning and running the WTREX in Banff. Aside from Park, the incident commander mentors include Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, who retired after 37 years with the US Forest Service and was a former type 1 incident commander, and Monique (Mo) Hein, from Lafayette County Fire Department in Boulder County Colorado who has 13 years of fire service.

Park said this conference is the perfect opportunity to empower each other.

“It also gives an opportunity to the men that are involved to see what it’s like to see diversity, because if we want the men and people who are in the majority to be our allies, they need to see our value, and by showing them this amazing lineup of people, that's how we build allies,” she said.

“Having a stronger voice because there's more of them advocating for us to say ‘these people have value, they bring experience, they bring different points of view’. What we're trying to do is level the playing field by giving them opportunities.”

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