Across the country’s West and upper Midwest regions, wildfires have become alarmingly more common. But rather than fire suppression, controlled fires, also known as prescribed burns, can help keep wildfires from spreading out of control and actually create more resilient, healthier forests.
Ruth Campos works as a burn crew member for the Southern Illinois interagency habitat and fuels crew with The Nature Conservancy. It uses controlled burns to restore life to landscapes. In the last year, she has traveled to Minnesota and California to help battle wildfires, and she wants more women – especially women of color to join her.
Campos explained how controlled burns begin with “a prescription,” or “a set of points that we’ve predetermined, like certain weather conditions to restore the management of ecological forest. And so prescribed fire is just a tool that has been used for a long time by native and Indigenous people. And we are bringing it back because it is really important,” said Campos.
Campos says that even though wildfires aren’t actually happening in the area, Chicagoans still saw the effects of the fires raging elsewhere.
“I’m sure in the Chicago area you saw a lot of smoke. We had those very bad smoke days and specifically here in the Midwest close to home,” Campos said. “We have forest all over the country and some are more susceptible to burning, whether it’s because of the temperature or because of the terrain, what kind of trees there are. And so Minnesota sees fire but because of a drought they saw a lot more fire this year.”
Campos says working in the great – and fiery – outdoors wasn’t always her plan. But she quickly found a place for herself in America’s forests.
“When I first started doing conservation work a couple years ago as a trail worker, I didn’t think I was going to be doing it for a long time,” she said. “However, there is such a great sense of community, especially the fire community is great, and all the women in fire that I’ve had the opportunity to work with have just made me feel like this is the place for me, and made me feel like I can be here and it’s important for me to be here.”
The conservation and forestry fields are overwhelmingly white and male, something the first generation Mexican American Campos hopes to change as a mentor for the Nature Conservancy Women in Fire fellowship.
“I think it’s important to have more diversity. We have very dynamic and unique jobs when it comes to fire, whether it’s prescribed fire or fire suppression, it is not just getting a tool and putting that fire out. We actually have a lot of different (tools): problem-solving, community building, team building. And so we need a diverse group of people to solve those difficult and dynamic problems.”
And for young Latinas who see the work she’s doing and want to explore more, Campos has a simple piece of advice on how to start.
“Come do it! Contact me! It’s beautiful work and it’s unique … it is fun and it’s worth it. We just need more of us.”