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'We are enough': Women get boots on the ground in N.W.T. firefighter training

The Northwest Territories' Department of Environment and Natural Resources set up the training to help increase the number of women and non-binary people in their fire crews.

'It's so male-dominated and it's intimidating,' says Inuvik crew member

Instructor Angel Simon, a forest officer in the Beaufort-Delta region, practices hose work with participant Vanessa Chocolate. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

A group of trainees got a taste of what it's like to fight forest fires this week.

The Northwest Territories' Department of Environment and Natural Resources set up the training to help increase the number of women and non-binary people in their fire crews.

"We hope it brings us more women in the field because I think we could use it," says Yvonne Meulenbroek, a fire crew leader in Norman Wells, N.W.T., and one of the instructors. 

Twenty participants from across the territory took part at the Frank Channel fire base near Behchokǫ, and learned forest management and how to tackle forest fires.

Women take the reins at the N.W.T.'s 1st all-female firefighting course

10 months ago
Duration 3:26
The N.W.T. government ran its first all-female emergency firefighter training course in Behchokǫ̀ this week. Instructor Darcie Setzer of Inuvik says the goal is to pique some interest among women and non-binary people. "It's so male dominated and it's intimidating," she said. "We just wanted to reach out to females in the Northwest Territories and say, 'We want you here.'"

Participants did physical endurance drills and learned everything from working with water hoses and pumps to putting out fires. 

Meulenbroek hopes this course will encourage women to see firsthand that people other than men can be part of the crew.

"It's not so much that there isn't room in the industry but I think there needs to be a shift in perspective," Meulenbroek said. "I think women take themselves out of the game and think, 'maybe I'm not strong enough, maybe I'm not big enough, or maybe I'm not good enough' but we are enough and being here shows that."

Instructors Darcie Setzer and Yvonne Meulenbroek go over how to start the water pump with the trainees. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Many participants feel that it's time for the industry to open up more opportunities for women, and are keen to learn and join to help their communities. 

Vanessa Chocolate is from Behchokǫ̀ and a mother of 10 kids. 

Now that she's tried it, she wants to pursue a career in firefighting. Her motivation to join is to keep her community safe. 

"To fight for my country, to fight fires and to make sure my community doesn't catch on fire, that's why I'm doing this," she said.

Meulenbroek said land stewardship is an important component and one of the reasons why women feel the job is important.

"Just giving people that chance to be more invested in protecting the land that they care about gives a greater sense of self and it's so important to identity," she said, "[It] also makes you feel better as a woman to take care of stuff that is our home too."

Twenty participants from across the N.W.T. took part in the training near Behchokǫ̀, and learned about forest management and how to tackle forest fires. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Darcie Setzer, an instructor and a crew member from Inuvik, N.W.T., thinks the course gives women a chance to learn in a positive environment that's less intimidating.

"It's so male-dominated and it's intimidating to just try and be a female crew member," she said.

"You don't even know where to start sometimes. And so we just want to reach out to any of the females in the Northwest Territories and just say, you are so welcome to be a part of this … We want you here, and we want more females in this job for sure."

Travel for the participants was covered by the department and organizers say the response has been encouraging. 

They're planning to give more advance notice of the course next year in hopes of attracting even more participants.

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