SPOTLIGHT: How One Woman Rose To The Top Of Wildland Firefighting

Sep 1, 2016

Beth Lund starts her day long before most people are done dreaming.

At 5 a.m., she’s out of her tent – coffee in hand – getting ready for a 6:00 a.m. briefing with her team at fire camp in Idaho City. Over the hum of generators, Lund takes the microphone on a wooden platform and addresses about 50 firefighters.

“Well, good morning," Lund says. "I see the group out here’s dwindling a little bit. So I think that’s a sign that some of this stuff on the southern end is getting wrapped up.”

She points to a big projected map of the Pioneer Fire behind her, and thanks her team for their hard work.

“One last thing: I hear a lot of people coughing this morning so go to the med tent, get some of that preventative stuff – make sure your folks are taking care of themselves and try to stay as healthy as you can. This is the time of year we’ve got to watch out for that, so take care of each other.”

Lund is one of 16 Type 1 incident commanders in the country, and one of only two women in that position. Type 1 incident teams deal with the nation’s most complex wildfires. At times she’s managed as many as 2,200 people fighting the Pioneer Fire, which has been burning in the Boise National Forest since July 18.

The Pioneer Fire, which is burning in the Boise National Forest, is the biggest wildfire in the country as of September 1.
Credit Inciweb

The 60-year-old started fighting fires when she was 20 – back when being a female firefighter was almost unheard of.

Lund has had experience in just about every facet of wildfire suppression and management. She worked on hotshot crews in her home state of California in the early 80s. She loved digging lines and hauling hoses, and didn’t mind working with men who often challenged her abilities.

“I don’t take it personally – I just say, ‘Well dude, that’s your problem. I’m doing my job and if you don’t like it, don’t watch.’”

It’s that quiet resolve – and ability to ignore big egos – that allowed Lund to climb the ranks. She moved to Lowman, Idaho and took a job with the Boise National Forest. She had her first experience on a megafire there, working the historic and destructive Lowman Fire of 1989.

Managing Fire By Managing People

Lund's job these days is still about putting out fires – mostly by managing people. She deftly navigates the different personalities she works with, both at the public meetings she leads in communities affected by wildfire, and back at fire camp.

Over at the airstrip at the far end of fire camp, Dave Matheny works with the helicopters as they make water drops on the 250-square-mile Pioneer Fire.

He says having a female incident commander is a cool thing – because it’s so rare.

“She the only female IC I’ve ever worked with," he says. "She has this great ability to set this calm tone and tenor for the incident. She’s pleasant. Very capable.”

Three years ago, Lund’s leadership was on display at the Beaver Creek Fire near Sun Valley. She worked closely with Bart Lassman, the Wood River Fire and Rescue chief. He attended regular briefings with Lund, and would talk strategy with her.  

“She could be very serious when it was time to be serious," Lassman says, "then she was open, compassionate to local groups handing out supplies to the firefighters and she was very thankful to the community.”

Lassman says he’s worked with both male and female incident commanders, and that Lund’s gender doesn’t make a difference when it comes to her competency.

"Womens Only" porta potties are a relatively new addition to large fire camps. Nationally, only 15 percent of wildland firefighters are women.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

But Lund’s gender does make a difference to Mercedes Martinez, who works in radio communications at the Pioneer Fire.

“It feels really awesome," says Martinez. "It feels empowering – working under a woman – especially in a Type 1 team. It’s a big job.”  

Martinez is 25, and this is her third wildfire season. She says she wants to make fire her career, and seeing people like Lund at the top gives her encouragement.

Without meaning to, Lund has become a role model for young women in fire – including her own daughter Allison, who’s been a member of the Boise Hotshots for 10 years.

But when Lund looks around at the pipeline of younger women in wildland firefighting, she struggles to name any on the path to becoming a Type 1 incident commander. She says that has more to do with life choices than abilities and access. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 15 percent of firefighters are women.

Mercedes Martinez says working for Lund is an empowering experience. The 25-year-old hopes to make fire her career.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

“You hear a lot about the glass ceiling, this that and the next thing," say Lund. "But I think if you really want something, it’s out there and you can get it.”

She’s wrapping up her second stint at the Pioneer Fire this summer, and then will head back to her desk job with the Forest Service in Utah. The firefighting boss is not anxious to retire yet, and says she would like to work at least another couple of seasons.
 

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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