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Covering wildland firefighter discrimination and assault

BY TAYLOR WYLLIE, MISSOULA, MONTANA
When Krista Langlois set out in 2014 to report on Women in Wildland Fire boot camps, she thought her story would be a day-in-the-life type piece on the experience. She planned to cover the program created by Bequi Livingston, a former wildland firefighter who wanted to help women pursue the same line of work. Langlois started her reporting shortly after news broke of women firefighters suing the USDA over allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse from men in the agency, and the story shifted to document the struggles women face in such a male-dominated field and how the Forest Service has spent decades ignoring it. The freelancer shares what went into her year and a half reporting for the story that published in High Country News.
Q: What did the story look like when you originally pitched it to your editors?
A: When I pitched it to High Country News it was “let me go down to this boot camp and write like a two-page, first-person narrative about what it’s like to try to be a woman getting started in this very male-dominated field.” I thought the boot camp was going to be a lot more boot-campy. More people yelling in your face, and doing push-ups and that kind of thing. Everyone was super nice. They hiked and did a few push-ups and a few drills and stuff, but it ended up being a lot more tame than I envisioned it would be.
Q: So the story changed quite a bit then?
A: Yeah (laughs). That was also part of the reason it took so long from when I first wrote about the lawsuit in the fall of 2014. A year and a half later was when the story finally got published.
Q: Can you walk me through these changes?
A: After I started talking to some of these women and after it was revealed that women in the Grand Canyon and the Park Service had been facing harassment for decades and the Park Service hadn’t done anything about it and had been aware of it, that’s when we started looking more at how the Forest Service had handled these allegations.
I never had to repitch it. I have a really great relationship with High Country News. It was continuously talking with multiple editors and making them aware of the twists and turns that the story was taking.
Q: Was it difficult for you to find women to talk to?
A: It really wasn’t. Most of the women I talked to had already come forward, they had already experienced the repercussions of that and the sort of reputation that comes along with it. They weren’t stoked to talk about it again, but they had already made the decision to come forward and be public figures about it. There are so many other women out there, I think, who are sexually harassed, abused, intimidated, whatever, on the job and the majority of them probably never come forward. I didn’t talk to those people, and I imagine if I had they would’ve had a difficult time.
Q: You say you realized Bequi was a character from the first time you spoke with her. How do you know when you’ve found somebody who can carry your story, as Bequi does?
A: You just know. Some people are, some people are not. Some people speak very frankly and some people speak bureaucrat-ese. Some people are quote machines, and Bequi was one of them. It’s kind of like a sixth sense that you develop as a journalist.
Q: Was there any push-back from the Forest Service as you were reporting?
A: Yes! I dealt with probably six different public information officers and I eventually, toward the end, found two who were really helpful, and were willing to get me what I needed even if it didn’t make the Forest Service look good. The others earlier in the process pretty much just shut me out.
Q: How long did it take you to find these two officers?
A: I don’t think I got in touch with either of them until 2016. That was part of the reason why this process took so long. I was getting shut down and I was not able to get the information that I needed, so then the whole reporting process sputtered to a stop for a while. Somehow I talked to somebody and they were like, you should talk to this person and then I got interviews with that person and so on.
Q: Were you surprised by some of these women’s stories and these statistics about sexual harassment and discrimination within federal agencies?
A: Yeah, I had no idea. Like I say in the story, I don’t think that every woman who works for public land management agencies, experiences these kinds of things. Once you start, even just getting the data, and realizing that there are fewer women wildlife firefighters than in the U.S. military and because there are so few of them and they’re dispatched to such remote places, the environment is ripe for this kind of abuse to happen.
I talked to somebody who made a really good point. She said people do horrible things everywhere, so it’s not like male wildlife firefighters are a particularly terrible group of people. I think what happened in the Forest Service and what’s happening in the Park Service, is that the system has broken down at the highest level. I guess it’s not so surprising that women are sexually assaulted, what’s more surprising is that the agencies did such a poor job of handling those allegations.
Read Langlois’ story at http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.9/trial-by-fire. ♦
— Taylor Wyllie is a journalism student at the University of Montana and a former OWAA intern. Her work has appeared on Montana PBS, Montana Public Radio and in the Missoulian.

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