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Then-Interim U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen addressed attendees of the Fire Continuum Conference in May. Christiansen took the "interim" off her title and became the chief of the Forest Service on Wednesday.

To protect America’s forests from wildfire, the leader of the U.S. Forest Service first must protect her own colleagues from workplace cruelty.

“This is a watershed moment for the agency,” Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said on Monday. “We can’t achieve the critical conditions necessary to improve the conditions of American forests unless we have an inclusive environment.”

That means making the Forest Service a place where women and minorities can work feeling free from harassment, bullying and retaliation, Christiansen said. She took that on as one of her first tasks within days of her appointment as interim chief of the agency, in the wake of predecessor Tony Tooke’s resignation after revelations of his sexual misconduct with a female coworker he supervised.

Christiansen was in Missoula to open an international gathering of wildfire scientists, managers and policy makers. The Fire Continuum Conference has brought attendees from 20 countries to learn from more than 400 workshops and seminars during the five-day event at the University of Montana campus.

In addition to confronting the new kinds of catastrophic wildfires that have scorched both communities and budgets, the conference shined a spotlight on the fire community’s own problem with discrimination. Rocky Mountain Research Station research ecologist Karin Riley said she hit the problem herself trying to schedule speakers for the conference. In searching for scientists to give the talks, she found most past conventions had an average of one woman for every five male presenters.

Christiansen said changing that climate was one of her top tasks. In early June, the whole agency will take a day to have some of what she called “awkward conversations.” She compared it to the “stand-downs” where firefighters break to learn from major accidents.

“We’re going to do a ‘stand-up’, where one day every unit puts aside normal business and stands up for each other,” Christiansen said. “We’re waiting until June, because we want the seasonals to be involved. Everyone will be held accountable.”

Christiansen herself started her career as a firefighter, and spent decades leading state forestry programs and wildland fire management. She’s been with the Forest Service for seven years, including a brief stint in 2012 as Region 1 interim forester at the Missoula headquarters.

Now she leads an agency that spent $2.4 billion in 2017 fighting wildfire. That marked the costliest fire year on record, and saw the deaths of 14 wildland firefighters. That's a death rate six times higher than structure firefighters, Christiansen said. 

In addition, about 2 percent of those wildfires ate up 30 percent of the spending. Even so, those big fires proved almost invulnerable to everything the firefighters threw at them. A major topic of the week's gathering will be looking at how to deal with those unstoppable fires that are becoming increasingly frequent.

Also in Monday’s plenary sessions, Forest Service program director Sara Brown put the problem in personal terms in her afternoon presentation. The Oregon-based researcher and former smokejumper recalled how she built a tough, masculine persona to fit in with her male firefighting colleagues, to the extent she froze out other women who she didn’t think measured up.

“Sticking up for other women would make me a woman,” Brown said. “They were pulling me down.”

That exclusive culture of belonging to an elite team has shown problems in other working spheres, Brown said. Women in such exclusive environments either feel like tokens, allowed in by special exception; or they get a “queen bee” attitude making them separate from other women. Either way, they end up seeing other women as competitors or obstacles to their own advancement, rather than comrades who might expand the value of the organization.

The problem exists worldwide. Mexican fire researcher Diego Perez-Salicrup told the assembled conference that his national firefighting force had 1,731 members, 58 of them women. In academia, just 28 percent of the scientists studying fire behavior are women.

Furthermore, Perez-Salicrup said most of Mexico’s fires happen in rural areas where the residents are poorest, but paradoxically, know the most about using fire on their farms and forests.

“How can we have these people sitting in these chairs?” Perez-Salicrup asked the audience in the University of Montana Dennison Theater. “It’s hard for scientists to come to meetings in the United States. We need to go out there.”

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