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Meet Sierra: Wildland Fire Contracting and Public Information Officer

saw Sierra’s story on a Facebook group I’m a part of and was so impressed with her amazing story! Without further ado… read about this amazing woman and I know you’ll be in awe of her tenacity like I am.

Tell us a little about yourself and your career

My name is Sierra Hellstrom. I just had my 15 year anniversary working for the Forest Service. My position is in Wildland Fire. And as if that career is not busy enough, I also run a successful photography business in northern Utah. My photography skills gets put to great use at my full-time job at the Forest Service, capturing the destructive beauty that is wildfire.

I grew up on a farm in rural Utah, spending my days hauling hay, feeding animals, driving tractors, and helping keep the family farm running. By working the land throughout my childhood, it gave me a deep respect for the land and the life it brings to all of us. It gave me a passion for land management and maintaining healthy ecosystems for both current and future generations. Farming had the same impact on all of my family; 4 of my 7 siblings work for Public Land Management Agencies (two for the Forest Service and two for the State of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources).

I’ve began working full-time for the Forest Service starting in high school (work release) and all through college. While obtaining my college education, I worked various positions in the Forest Service including Fire Prevention Officer, Fire Education (Smokey Bear education), Public Affairs, Forest Health Educator, Forest Visitor Center Supervisor, and Nature Camp Director. During these years, I obtained my wildland fire qualifications as a Firefighter. I had always had a love of fire (call me a pyromaniac :)). After working a few wildland fires, I fell in love with the work and knew that was where I belonged. I earned my Master’s Degree from the University of Utah in 2010, with a major in Public Administration, Public Affairs and a minor in English, Writing/Editing. Upon graduation, I began working permanently in Wildland Fire and LOVE my career.

My official job is a Wildland Fire Contracting Officer. During the off-season for wildland fire (Nov-April), I solicit federal contracts for firefighting equipment, such as fire Engines, Fallers to cut down trees, Chippers to cut up the cleared vegetation, Heavy Equipment such as dozers to create fuel breaks. I oversee inspections of the equipment and I verify all their wildland fire training. It took me two extra years of education in addition of my Master’s degree to gain the knowledge required for this position.

During the fire season (May-Oct), I am mobilized to work on wildland fires. We are nation-wide resources, so I get to work not only on my local forest, but I get to travel all over the country for fire assignments. My position on wildfires now is a Public Information Officer (PIO). I am responsible for all of the media and community interaction. On a daily basis I give tv interviews, write press releases, update social media sites, facilitate public meetings. With my photography skills, I am able to capture incredible photos and video that are used by the media to report on our fires. Since fire itself is so dangerous, news stations cannot get close to the action. I ride in the helicopters and get near the fireline in order to capture footage. You’ll often see my photos and videos on local and national news stations, showing the power and destruction of these fires. My job is to create order out of the chaos of a wildland fire, and to disseminate this information to keep the public informed.

We work 14 days on the fire, then we get 2 days off to go home and reset. During our 14 days we sleep in tents, often in extreme temps (sometimes 100+ degrees during the day and below freezing at night). We work 16 hour days, which is both exhausting and exhilarating. Often on the small fires, we do not have showers so it involves a lot of baby-wipe bathes in my tent at night. By the time our 14 days is over, all I want is a hot shower and my comfy bed. Through the long days and the hard hours, I always remember that I am part of something bigger than myself. We are saving homes, lives and public land. There is nothing more rewarding knowing my actions are making a difference in the world.

How does your community of women you surround yourself with support you?

 “Empowered women empower women”

I was lucky enough to follow in my sister’s footsteps when joining the Forest Service. She is a Law Enforcement Officer with the agency, also a very male-dominated workforce. Her example is inspiring, and I love working so closely with her.

Working in a male-dominated program like wildland fire, I have made a conscious effort to have a strong support system that encourages my efforts. I belong to an Empowering Women Discussion Group. We gather quarterly to discuss books, work, social impacts of our jobs, etc. I am also part of many social media groups with forums to discuss these topics (Women Inspiring Women, Aspiring Mormon Women, etc). One of the keys to success is finding other strong women and maintain that bond. Behind every successful woman is a tribe of women who have her back.

I am very fortunate to work with amazing mentors both within and outside the agency. Success is never reached alone. I try to be like the mentors I had, raising other women into positons of empowerment.

“Individually we are one drop… together, we are the ocean.”

What advice do you have for women who work in very male dominated industries? 

Wildland Fire is a mainly male-dominated field, as is most firefighting in general. Many times on smaller fires, I am the only female working on the team. My thesis was titled “The Forest Service: A female-inclusive fraternity.” I studied both public and employee perception of the agency and its gender discrepancies. I also compared historical data of leadership positions of men vs. women, including promotions and percentages. The results were that while gender equality is increasing in the agency, it is far from equal.

I think that “men” as a generic term get a bad reputation. Most men have good intentions and want to do the right thing (as I personally believe, do most humans). The Forest Service has a deep history of oppression of females. Women were intentionally not hired or failed to be promoted because (male) leaders felt females were incapable of doing some of the work***.  However, I do not hold the current generation accountable for their predecessors’ behavior.

The key to working in a male-dominated industry is to hold everyone accountable for his/her own actions. Do not blame all men for the actions of some. However, do not allow any man (or woman) to mistreat another. It strongly believe in the (cliché) phrase “If you see something, say something.” I was the victim of sexual harassment while in my position. Since then, I have become an advocate for women in the agency and maintain a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment, assault, and even harassment and bullying. I want to do everything I can to make this a better place to work for everyone, because I believe very strongly in the mission of the agency.

If you are interested in learning more about gender inequality in the Forest Service, there is a book titled “The Tinder Box” that discusses the history of gender discrimination in the agency. I preface that the (male) author has a slight misogynist bias, but the factual information is accurate.

What do you wish you could go back and tell your younger self re: your career aspirations?

Do more things that scare you, so you can force yourself out of your comfort zone. This is the only way growth occurs. I look back on my 15 year career. I was demure. I did not stand up for myself, and one of my biggest regrets… I did not always stand up for others who needed it. Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for others.

“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.”– Dan Stevens

What is your career-related mantra? 

“Strong women are not born, but forged. They walk through the fires of adversity with their heads held high. They’ve been through hell, but they survive because the fire inside of them burns brighter than the fire around them. They don’t fear the fire. They simply become it and light the path for others to follow…”

I commissioned a friend to create an image I’d only had in my mind. I wanted something that not only depicted my passion for my career, but how I perceive myself. Strong, bright, refusing to be consumed by the pain others have caused me. Fire (like life) can either destroy or strengthen… you make the choice. This image is a perfect representation of the woman I’ve fought to become. Thank you @Whett_Paint for capturing my soul 

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