INHF's Melanie Schmidt returns from wildfire duty

By CJ Younger on August 18, 2021 in Blog

Melanie Schmidt in wildfire gear

This past month, INHF’s Volunteer Coordinator Melanie Schmidt was called out west for wildfire duty in northwest Montana. She was assigned to the Hay Creek fire just outside of Glacier National Park and worked with a team of six to reduce fuel (anything the fire can burn) and prevent the wildfire from spreading. Schmidt shares her experience with us after returning to Iowa this week.

Why did you volunteer to be on wildfire duty?

This is the fourth time that I’ve gone out. My first time was in 2016 — I remember hearing about the firefighters who had gone out and their experiences, and it sounded like something that I wanted to experience for myself. The last three times I’ve gone out, it felt very fulfilling and rewarding to be giving back to a community that really needed help. I also personally love the physical challenge of it. There’s not a ton of females in the wildfire world and I want to help other women feel like they can do the same thing, like if I can do it, anyone can, and help build a path for females who want to get out and do wildfire duty.

What was the most challenging part?

Honestly, it’s not so much the physical work — it’s usually the stigma that comes with being a female on a wildfire assignment. It’s not always the case, but sometimes I feel like I’m constantly having to prove that I’m capable. I know that I’m capable — it’s just trying to let others see that I’m a capable firefighter, I have leadership skills and I’ve done this before. My biggest challenge isn’t not having showers or sleeping on the ground — it’s trying to break that stigma of being a woman in a very male-dominant career.

How does wildfire duty connect back to your job at INHF?

I think the biggest thing is the leadership skills I’ve brought back from wildfire duty. I’ve been working on getting my FFT1 (Firefighter Type 1), which is the next level up from a basic firefighter, to become a squad boss on a hand crew. I feel that the leadership skills I’m learning from working with a group of five other firefighters correlates directly with working with INHF volunteers out in the field and our interns during the summer. It’s helping me build some of that confidence by working with a variety of people with different personalities and skill levels.

What do you want INHF readers to know about your experience on wildfire duty?

It truly is a passion. People who go out on wildfire duty don’t do it because they’re being forced to go—it’s a mission and a duty and a passion to go out there. Having the opportunity to take off two to three weeks from my job makes me feel so honored that INHF has given me the opportunity to go build myself professionally and personally and bring those skills back to INHF. I hope my experiences will help build our volunteer and intern program, and INHF as a whole.

INHF Central Iowa Land Stewardship Director Ryan Schmidt is currently serving in South Dakota on wildfire duty, and other INHF staff may be called up later this year. For more information on wildfire duty, read Call of the Wildfire, INHF’s coverage from last year’s fires.