Fire Training Focuses on Women

Firefighters from multiple states and several foreign countries are participating in the WITREX program currently taking place in Southeastern North Carolina. (NCFS Photo)
A unique international wildland fire training program in southeastern North Carolina is empowering women and teaching them skills that may not have been available to them before.
Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) is an intensive two-week training that combines live-fire experience with indoor learning to advance participants’ qualifications and knowledge in ecological fire management. The program began on Feb. 20, and it will run through March 3 at the Singletary Lake State Park in Kelly.
The number of women in the fire field is vastly lower than the number of men, with only 10 percent of federal fire management positions are held by females.
Carrie McCullen, Forest Supervisor for Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest, said it may be hard for some of these leaders to see themselves represented as fire practitioners.
“In the field, it’s a challenge to find that space where women are trained in the area they want to work in when it comes to fire,” said McCullen. “There can be challenges with getting them involved in male roles. We are working together to get them up to speed where they may not have had the opportunity in the past.”
Though the prescribed training is geared toward the fairer sex, participants of all genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds are invited to attend.
“It’s a celebration of people,” said McCullen.
The diverse group in attendance is made up of more than 40 individuals and 25 agencies and organizations spanning 15 continental states and Puerto Rico. But the reach of WTREX doesn’t end there.
Four countries from across three continents – Germany, Canada, Nova Scotia, Australia, and the U.S. – are involved in the exchange. Participants from North Carolina to California and Oregon and everywhere in between have traveled to the eastern part of the country to attend WTREX.
Some of the agencies at the event include the N.C. Forest Service, the N.C. Park System, the N.C. State University Extension, and other large non-profit conservation groups. The USDA Forest Service, the Southern Fire Exchange, and others are among the partners and sponsors that made the program possible.
Many training topics are covered during WTREX. Hands-on intensive training on prescribed burns helps with checking off qualifications an individual may need. Cross training and leadership roles give experience with on the line supervising and weather spotting. Inhouse training covers interacting with the media, GIS data input, and pinpointing things on map.
Attendees are also taught how to work with chainsaws and much more.
“The sky is the limit,” expressed McCullen. “The weather even provided us days to train in the rain.”
Not only is WTREX helpful to the general public, they are also providing a service to the state parks as well.
Participants are actively involved in the careful implementation of a controlled burn in the longleaf pine savanna. It’s home to an incredible array of species including the Venus flytrap that’s native only to a small area of the coastal plain region.
WTREX started on Feb. 20, and so far, more than 1,000 acres of prescribed burning has taken place from Raeford to Southern Pines, Carolina Beach near the State Park, and parts of Pender, Onslow and Bladen counties.
This is Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange’s sixth annual event. The training is held in different locations and different countries each year. Even COVID didn’t derail WTREX during the pandemic. Representatives provided classes online, and last year, the program was held in Virginia.
In 2024, the WTREX crew will head north to Canada, and McCullen hopes that all fire practitioners along the way will take advantage of the platform.
“WTREX is a program that I am new to. It’s allowed me to get a real sense of the community and cooperation with the partners and agencies in North Carolina. It’s been eye opening,” she said. “I hope that anyone that is interested in a fire field or anyone who is interested in advancing their career will take up the opportunity to use this avenue. There is so much diversity, and everyone has brought something to the table. It’s a great experience.”
If you or your organization is interested in attending or learning more about WTREX, contact McCullen at 910.588.4161, or call Sydney Bezanson, Development and Marketing Manager of the N.C. Nature Conservancy, at 919.794.4398.