North

Half of Yukon's women-only firefighting program grads now first responders

Of the last four years’ participants of a women-only crash course on firefighting in Yukon, a little more than half have gone on to serve in emergency services.

The Ember Fire Academy is in its fifth year

The Ember Fire Academy is funded by the Yukon's Department of Community Services. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Of the last four years' participants of a women-only crash course on firefighting in Yukon, a little more than half have gone on to serve in emergency services.

The Ember Fire Academy is organized by the Yukon Fire Marshal's Office. It's a free program for women and girls aged 16 and older.

This year, its fifth, the program is being held in Carcross July 22-27. Its 12 participants are from several Yukon communities, according to Ursula Geisler, deputy chief of the academy.

Their training includes putting out different kinds of fires with different extinguishers, performing practice rescues with ropes, and using hydrants, among other exercises.

Ursula Geisler is a firefighter at the Golden Horn Volunteer Fire Department. (Steve Silva/CBC)

"Because firefighting is mostly a male-dominated environment still, we are really trying to encourage women to try firefighting and see what they like," Geisler said on Tuesday at the community's fire hall, where a big portion of the training is happening.

Dyson Hale, chief of the Ibex Volunteer Fire Department, assisted with training, though he said he was also there with another motive: headhunting.

"These women are perfectly capable of firefighting," he said.

For an effective firefighting team, it's important to have people of different strengths and talents, among other differences, Hale said.

Dyson Hale is the chief of the Ibex Volunteer Fire Department. (Steve Silva/CBC)

"If you have a large, six-and-a-half-foot-tall guy who weighs 250 pounds — I mean, he's an excellent firefighter, absolutely, but will he fit inside of a crushed car? No," he said.

Most of this year's participants are from Whitehorse, a little under an hour's drive away, and elsewhere nearby. Geisler said one of the goals is to offer this training in other communities in the future.

Of the 48 women who have completed the program, 23 became volunteer firefighters, and two have become paramedics, according to Geisler, who is a firefighter at the Golden Horn Volunteer Fire Department.

The program costs $40,000 a year, and is funded by the Fire Marshal's Office.

"It is difficult to determine the exact number of firefighters in Yukon today that are women," Maxim Naylor, a spokesperson for Yukon's Department of Community Services, said in an email Thursday.

"The Fire Marshal's Office estimates the number is approximately 30 [per cent]," he added.

James Paterson, the territory's deputy fire marshal at the time, said in 2015 that 23 per cent of the territory's firefighting force were women. 

Hailey Birnie is a recruit in the Ember Fire Academy.

"The skills that we're learning here are so transferable to daily life," said recruit Hailey Birnie.

The Whitehorse resident said on Tuesday that she's still debating if she'll continue firefighting after the program, but she's enjoying it so far.

"Having this opportunity to have kind of women-only training, I think kind of removes some of those barriers and allows more people to kind of step up and be like, 'Yeah, I want to try that, but I want to try it in a space that I feel really comfortable in,' and I think that's something they're providing here."

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