Prior to starting college, Taylor Mohead had never ventured outside of her hometown in Houston, Texas. However, as a recent graduate of Tuskegee University, she finds herself in Hazel Green, Alabama, wearing fire gear and enduring sweltering heat while trekking through trees.

Mohead, a U.S. Forest Service intern, is one of 20 students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) participating in a prescribed burn demonstration under the supervision of instructors. They clear paths, ignite fires, and ensure the embers are properly extinguished. This experience is part of an apprenticeship program that will equip them with the necessary credentials to engage in firefighting immediately.

Although it may seem arduous, Mohead is relishing the opportunity. The idea of herself fighting forest fires never crossed her mind before.

“Look at me. I’m really small. I’m really short. And then being a woman of color, that’s something, too. I feel like that’s more inspiring,” Mohead said, grinning. “I got goosebumps right now.”

The on-site fire academy is affiliated with the 1890 Land Grant Institution Wildland Fire Consortium, which is a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and a cluster of HBCUs, including Florida A&M University, Southern University in Louisiana, Tuskegee University, and Alabama A&M University.

This recruitment effort comes at a time when wildfire season in the U.S. is expanding due to climate change, and the representation of minorities in forestry and firefighting remains inadequate. While the number of wildfires this year is below the 10-year average, the hot and dry conditions increase the risk, as stated by the National Interagency Fire Center.

The concept of the consortium originated during the pandemic as a response to a “mission critical area of the Forest Service,” according to Stephanie Love, the USDA Forest Service’s national diversity student programs manager and an Alabama A&M alum. The initiative formalized in 2021.

“These four HBCUs have some of the top agricultural programs at HBCUs in the nation. So, it just makes sense to align our efforts and move together in the same direction,” Love said. “We’re trying to create a pipeline of students who are pursuing this natural resources education and forestry and fire.”

The goal is for every student to acquire a strong foundation that will open up various pathways in forestry, ecology, agriculture, or firefighting.

The consortium builds upon a long-standing relationship between Alabama A&M and the Forest Service. In 1993, a USDA Forest Service Center of Excellence in Forestry was established at the university to prepare students for employment opportunities within the agency.

Wildland firefighter students from Alabama A&M

Wildland firefighter students from different 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 in 2009 consisting of students, known as the FireDawgs. When not in class, the FireDawgs are deployed to wildfires or burn operations across the country.

The development programs resulting from the collaboration between Alabama A&M and the Forest Service have trained two-thirds of Black foresters in the federal agency, reported Love, who was part of the inaugural FireDawgs squad.

According to data collected by the agency, diversity among the Forest Service’s wildland firefighters has risen by 20% in the past decade. The agency, which has approximately 13,000 employees encompassing firefighters and other response staff, witnessed a decline in the percentage of white staffers from 86% to 66% between July 2010 and July 2022.

Black fire personnel make up a minuscule portion, hovering around 1.3%. Black women account for about half a percent. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic staff has grown by 10%. Native Americans/Alaska Natives and Asians represent approximately 3% and 1%, respectively. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders constitute less than 1%.

The lack of applicants from diverse backgrounds may be partially attributed to a lack of awareness. Guidance counselors and recruiters seldom encourage individuals of color to consider firefighting, stated Terry Baker, CEO of the Society of American Foresters and the organization’s first Black leader. Additionally, there exists a misconception that outdoor work lacks technicality or requires minimal skills, he added.

Retaining students who decide to pursue forestry or related fields becomes the subsequent challenge. Love explained that the Forest Service and HBCUs ensure the provision of mentorship programs, scholarships, and internships.

Bradley Massey, a junior at Alabama A&M and president of the university’s forestry club, shared that the institution ignited a passion within him. Prior to enrolling at Alabama A&M in 2021, Massey attended Auburn University before losing focus and working in retail in his hometown of Huntsville.

“As the school year progressed, that’s when more information about the FireDawgs presented itself,” Massey said while busily attending to his duties in fire gear. “I wanted to gain experience and make the most out of my college experience because I wasn’t just going back for fun. I was going back for a purpose.”

Since then, Massey has accomplished numerous achievements, including passing several firefighter work capacity tests, such as walking 3 miles in under 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack. In October, he even attended a conference in Boise, Idaho, engaging in field trips and discussions with fire professionals and students from around the nation.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Massey emphasized. “It was like going into Comic-Con and witnessing all the cool stuff, just wanting to take plenty of pictures… I believe it has greatly benefited my career.”

Baker, from the Society of American Foresters, highlighted that the need for more firefighters will only grow as wildfires become more severe due to worsened climate change and prolonged droughts.

“If we’re going to face these challenges, we need everyone,” Baker expressed. “What does that mean for a profession that has traditionally been dominated by white males?”

According to Baker, Black firefighters can feel intimidated and isolated when deployed to fires in predominantly white communities or when lacking fellow crew members who share their ethnicity. He recounted incidents where “people felt comfortable enough to openly admit that I was the first Black person they had ever met in real life, not just on TV.”

The current group of students finds reassurance in meeting HBCU alumni who have transitioned into fire or forestry professionals. They highlight the significance of working in the field alongside classmates turned crew members who share their background.

“It makes you more willing to go out there,” Mohead explained. “If you encounter a roadblock or obstacle, you have someone on your left who has probably faced it before.”

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