Wildland firefighting ignites graduate research

June 12, 2017
Jean Macgregor
Rachel Reimer

Felling trees on the frontline of a wildland fire wasn’t simply all in a day’s work for Initial Attack Commander Rachel Reimer. It was also part of her Master of Arts in Leadership research for which she’ll receive a Chancellor’s Award from Royal Roads University at Spring Convocation June 13.

A background in international and community development in the non-profit sector gave Reimer a unique perspective among wildland firefighters when she observed the way gender roles shaped power and privilege on the fireline.

“Once you learn how to see patterns in behavior, you can’t really unlearn it,” she says. “I started to notice the patterns and through individual experiences and also by hearing and observing, I realized there was a systemic issue going on that was definitely worth considering.”

Wildland firefighting culture cultivates a heroic masculine ideal from day one, she says.

“Because so much of fire culture is rooted in ‘rural masculinity’ that focuses on mastering your body, your tools and nature, and being able to withstand physical pain. If you are a female in a female body, you are associated with femininity, which in that value system is seen as weak or less than,” she says. “The need to prove yourself through physical effort is very much a part of fire culture. But when you are in a female body, you have a fear of being a weak link. It’s not an irrational fear. If you can’t quite carry as much hose as your crew members can, it will be noticed.”

Reimer’s research goal was to create change in a profession she cares deeply about, she says.

“That’s where leadership studies really came in for me. Because Royal Roads offered a program I could do mostly online and stay connected in the rural context and bounce ideas off firefighters who I was working with, with people I live and work with in a small logging town. In fire, there is a long history of looking at leadership critically. So I recognized that it would be an area of interest and speak to an area of already-identified concern for the organization.”

BC Wildfire Service Executive Director Madeline Maley concurs. “Rachel’s research really contributes to the conversation and thinking about what gender and leadership looks like, and certainly has facilitated conversations with our leadership team. It supports what’s going on in the organization in taking a systems approach to looking at it.”

For Reimer, who learned to handle a chainsaw at age 13, that systems approach to making change in wildland firefighting isn’t about fighting or winning a battle of the sexes.

“When I think of change from a systems perspective, from identifying a point of leverage and applying a small action that has ripple effects so the system can adjust, then I think profound change is very possible on this issue,” she says.

In addition to the university’s Chancellor’s Award for the highest academic achievement in the graduating cohort of the Master of Arts in Leadership program, Reimer received the Wildland Fire (WLF) Canada Student Ignition Award for the top student presentation at the 2016 WLF Canada conference. Her thesis was nominated for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship to Honour Nelson Mandela in 2016.

She’s presenting her research through webinars and presentations for BC Wildfire Service staff this spring and providing workshops on gender and leadership at the Women’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) organized by the Nature Conservancy (US) in October at which the gender ratio of conference attendees is deliberately flipped as a social experiment.