Veronica Hall is a Forest Fire Ranger living in Dryden, Ontario.
What is your morning routine?
My morning routine during fire season varies depending on the conditions. When I’m not on a fire, I’m training or on alert in Dryden. I wake up, eat breakfast, bike 14 kilometres to the fire base and officially start my work day at 10:30 a.m. by attending our daily weather briefing. If I’m camping out on a fire, I’m usually up before 7 a.m. making coffee and breakfast for the crew so we can head to the fire as early as possible, before it has a chance to heat up. This summer I was sent to assist with the Fort McMurray situation, and we were up at 5 a.m. with a one-hour truck commute to our segment of the fire. It all really depends on the situation and location, which keeps the job exciting.
Tell us about your career path.
I’m a seasonal Forest Fire Ranger for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) at the Dryden Fire Management Headquarters in northwestern Ontario. Since Dryden is my hometown, I knew a few people who worked for the MNR and I thought it sounded like a unique and challenging job. I always considered myself athletic, but I wasn’t at all outdoorsy when I applied after completing my sociology undergrad at the University of Toronto. I had to take a weeklong training course on basic wildland firefighting and pass a standardized fitness test before I was offered a one-month contract.
The following summer I got hired for the full season and now I’ve been working there for five years, taking on the role of Crew Boss for the last three. Since fire season only lasts from April to September, I was able to go back to school and earn a diploma in social service work from George Brown College. The dream I’m currently working towards is finding a way to combine forest firefighting and social justice work.
What challenges do you or women face in your industry?
I think women in the firefighting profession face similar problems to women in any male-dominated field. I can’t speak for all female fire rangers, but I have definitely experienced some challenges as a woman in the field. I’m a pretty tiny person and a lot of this job requires carrying heavy gear across challenging terrain. I make it work, but it’s always frustrating watching male colleagues pick something up with ease that takes all of my strength to carry. I try to remind myself that we all take the exact same fitness test, meaning we’re all physically capable of doing the work.
Another huge challenge for me was entering a job where I didn’t bring any “hands-on” skills with me, partially due to my gendered female upbringing. We’re responsible for maintaining our specialized equipment, like small engine motors in pumps, chainsaws and other hand tools. Many of my male coworkers grew up working on dirt bikes in their garages and cutting firewood with their fathers. I hadn’t even used an axe or changed a sparkplug before starting this job, so I had a lot of learning to do.
At my base last season there were 48 rangers and only nine women. If you’re the only woman on a four-person crew, you might not see another woman for two weeks. While I’ve worked with many respectful men, it’s a challenge for me to spend long periods of time without having the solidarity of other women to validate some of the struggles my male crewmates wouldn’t understand.
What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?
I would tell them that every person on a fire crew has his or her strengths and brings something valuable to the group. It’s something that took me a really long time to discover, to feel like I had worth among so many “handy men.” I know I’m not the person my crew would ask about how to fix our truck, but I’m great at navigating the interpersonal and psychosocial aspects of the work, which is highly valuable as an emergency responder put in physically- and emotionally-demanding situations.
Also, apply! I’ve talked to mangers about the lack of women in the field, and they aim to hire as many women as possible. If you’re a woman who loves the outdoors, hands-on physical work and the occasional flight in a helicopter, then take the course, do the fitness test and apply to every fire base in Ontario!
How do you separate work life from your personal life?
Forest firefighting definitely has an immersive aspect to it – it’s your life for an entire summer. There are many bases where rangers share bunkhouses for the whole season, meaning there’s basically no separation between work and personal life. While I love the social aspect of this job, I know I also need to keep some separation between the two. In Dryden, I rent an apartment in town so I can have my own quiet space. When camping in the bush for weeks, you actually don’t have any space away from work since you’re living with your crew for up to 19 days. I couldn’t imagine getting home from a tour and not taking a long shower and relaxing alone!
What inspires you?
Being outside and surrounded by clean lakes and beautiful forests has been pretty inspiring lately. Growing up in Dryden, I never appreciated how amazing northwestern Ontario is in the summer. Now, every April when I head back for the season, I get excited thinking about how accessible outdoor exploration is up there. I get inspired hearing about other people’s wild adventures and by making my own plans for my next outdoor trip.