Emma Ensley and Makenna Baxter are two young women working out of Southern Illinois as wildland firefighters for The Nature Conservancy on Women In Fire Fellowships.
The young women, both SIU graduates with forestry degrees, are trailblazers in many ways, representing the growing ranks of women wildland firefighters in a profession that has historically been extremely dominated by males.
According to Tharran Hobson, the Conservancy’s Southern Illinois area program director: “Diversity in all aspects of life is a good thing. The wildland fire world is a fast-paced, quick-thinking business and the more perspectives, thoughts, and ideas the better. With our local U.S. Forest Service partners, our goal was to prepare female professionals ready to take the next step in their career. The first year of the Women In Fire Fellowship has been a huge success thanks to the hard work of Emma, Makenna, and their mentors.”
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Mike Baltz: How did you get interested in nature and conservation?
Emma Ensley: I have always been drawn to the outdoors. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, I didn’t have as much exposure to natural areas as some of my peers. When I was ten I came to summer camp in Southern Illinois and instantly my fascination with nature became a passion.
Makenna Baxter: Growing up on a farm near O’Fallon, Illinois, I was always outside playing in the mud or out exploring the property. When I was in 6th grade my class took a trip to Touch of Nature where my love for nature truly began.
MB: Why did you pursue forestry in school and conservation professionally?
Emma: I love plants and being outdoors, so I wanted a career that allowed me to be outside as much as possible. Some days I am dripping sweat in blistering heat, and some days I am wearing ten layers and still cold, but I am grateful every day that I am outside.
I also appreciate the tangible change I can make on the earth. I get frustrated constantly philosophizing about what needs to be done on this planet. I much prefer being on the ground making a difference.
Makenna: I knew working in conservation was what I wanted to do, but I did not know what direction I wanted to go in. So, my freshman year I took a lot of different classes in the geography department, environmental sciences, and forestry. After I took the Tree Identification course, I knew forestry was the degree I wanted to pursue.
MB: What has been the best part of your jobs so far?
Emma: It is so hard to choose an exact moment. I have worked on large wildfires, doing my part in helping save people’s homes. I have ignited beautiful and satisfying prescribed burns. I have seen breathtaking places across the country and helped restore sensitive ecosystems. The variety, excitement, and challenge of my job is what keeps me engaged the most.
Makenna: The best part of my job so far is gaining all the experiences that this job brings. I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the most hard-working people I have ever met. This is pushing me to do better and inspiring me to never stop gaining knowledge.
MB: What advice would you give other women who might be interested in doing some version of what you’re doing?
Emma: Put yourself out there and be ready for the chaos. I won’t sugarcoat it — The fire world can be tough, especially if you aren’t a man. Often, men are freely given respect, while women must fight to prove they deserve it. That negative aspect of fire culture is not going to be changed in a day, unfortunately, so it’s best to be prepared.
Makenna: Put yourself out there. You’ll never know until you try. This work is very demanding physically and has been deemed as “man's work” which is not true at all. Some of the most knowledgeable and hard-working people I have had the opportunity to work with are women.
MB: As a young conservation professional what worries you about the future? What helps keep you hopeful about the future?
Emma: The climate crisis, in general, is petrifying. I know that the effects of climate change are visible everywhere, but it is especially jarring to see them firsthand, every day. I, like many young people, struggle with climate anxiety.
Through my work in fire, however, I have found an avenue to channel my frustration with our rapidly changing world. While I am not able to do much, I am able to do something. Looking out on the landscape after a successful burn and seeing the change, right before my eyes, gives me the tangible proof that I can help “fix” these ecosystems.
Makenna: What worries me the most about the future is the growing intensity of wildfires due, in part, to climate change. The larger and more numerous fires and the longer fire seasons have outpaced the supply of wildlands firefighters, so crews are working long hours in dangerous conditions for days on end. What makes me hopeful about the future of wildland firefighting though, is the growing recognition of the importance of this work.
To find out more about The Nature Conservancy’s Women In Fire Initiative visit nature.org.