Before starting college, Taylor Mohead had never been outside of her hometown of Houston, Texas. Now, the newly graduated Tuskegee University marches around trees in Hazel Green, Alabama, in fire gear and sweltering heat.
The U.S. Forest Service intern is one of 20 students from historically black colleges or universities who participate in a prescribed burn demonstration under the supervision of instructors. They clear paths, make fires and make sure the embers are out when they are cooked. It is part of an apprenticeship program that gives them the qualifications to hit the ground running toward a line of fire.
It’s a grueling way to spend the summer holidays, but Mohead enjoys it. She never saw herself fighting wildfires.
“Look at me. I’m really short. I’m really short. And then being a woman of color is also something. I feel like that’s more inspiring,” Mohead said with a grin. “I’m getting goosebumps now.”
The on-site fire academy is part of the 1890 Land Grant Institution Wildland Fire Consortium, a partnership between the US Forest Service and a cluster of HBCUs comprising Florida A&M University, Southern University in Louisiana, Tuskegee University, and Alabama A&M University.
The recruiting effort comes as the U.S. wildfire season grows due to climate change and minorities remain underrepresented in forestry and firefighting. Wildfire numbers this year are below the 10-year average, but hot and dry conditions increase the risk, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
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The idea for a consortium came about during the pandemic to address a “mission-critical area of the Forest Service,” said Stephanie Love, the manager of the USDA Forest Service’s National Diversity Student Programs and an Alabama A&M alum. became official in 2021.
“These four HBCUs have some of the best farming programs among HBCUs in the country, so it just makes sense to align our efforts and move in the same direction together,” said Love. “We’re trying to create a pipeline of students pursuing this education about natural resources and forestry and fire.”
The hope is that each student will have a basis for charting one of many possible paths in forestry, ecology, agriculture or firefighting.
The consortium builds on a decades-long relationship between Alabama A&M and the Forest Service. In 1993, a USDA Forest Service Center of Excellence in Forestry was established at the school to prepare students for agency jobs.
Wildland firefighters from several HBCUs listen during training on June 9, 2023 in Hazel Green, Alabama. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
The Bulldogs established a nationally accredited firefighting team made up of college students in 2009 called the FireDawgs. When there is no class, the FireDawgs are sent to wildfires or fire operations across the country.
The development programs emerging from the Alabama-Forest Service collaboration are responsible for training two-thirds of black forest rangers in the federal agency, said Love, who was on the first FireDawgs team.
According to data collected by the agency, diversity among the Forest Service’s wildfire firefighters has increased by 20% over the past decade. It has about 13,000 employees, including firefighters and other personnel responding to wildfires. Between July 2010 and July 2022, the white workforce dropped from 86% to 66%.
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Black firefighters have mostly stayed around 1.3%. Black women make up about half a percent. The number of Latin American employees has grown by 10%. Native Americans/Alaska Natives and Asians hover around 3% and 1%, respectively. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders make up less than 1%.
The lack of applicants of color may be due in part to a lack of awareness. They are not often encouraged to consider firefighting by guidance counselors or recruiters, said Terry Baker, CEO of the Society of American Foresters and the first black leader. There’s also a misconception that working outside isn’t very technical or doesn’t require skill, he said.
Once students decide to study forestry or related fields, keeping it becomes the next challenge. Love said the Forest Service and HBCUs make sure there are mentorships, grants and internships.
Bradley Massey, an Alabama A&M junior and president of the school’s forestry club, said the school sparked a passion he lacked. Massey said he was a student at Auburn University when he lost focus and worked retail back home in Huntsville before enrolling at Alabama A&M in 2021.
“As the school year progressed, more information came out about the FireDawgs,” Massey said in between running around in fire gear. “I just wanted to gain experience and get the most out of my college experience because I didn’t go back just for fun. I went back with purpose.”
Since then, he has achieved feats such as passing several firefighter capacity tests, including running 3 miles in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound backpack. In October, he traveled to a conference in Boise, Idaho, where he fielded and spoke with firefighting professionals and students from around the country.
“I didn’t want to leave,” said Massey. “It was like going to Comic-Con and seeing all the cool stuff and just wanting to take a lot of pictures…I feel like it’s helped me a lot in my career now.”
Baker, of the Society of American Foresters, said the need for more firefighters will only increase as wildfires intensify due to climate change and drought.
“If we are to meet these challenges, we need everyone,” said Baker. “What does that mean for a profession made up mostly of white men?”
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Black firefighters can feel intimidated and isolated in the field if they’re parachuting into fires in predominantly white communities or if they don’t have other crew members of color around them, Baker said. He recalled fire scenes where “people were comfortable enough to say openly that I was the first black person they ever met in real life that they didn’t see on TV.”
The current crop of students says it was comforting to meet HBCU alumni who have become firefighting or forestry professionals, noting that it’s something special to be in the field surrounded by crew-turned-classmates who look just like them.
“It makes you more willing to go there,” Mohead said. “If you hit a road stop or obstacle, you have someone on your left who probably went through it.”