Alaska program sparks interest in firefighting for Springfield grad

Wittenberg senior joined first all-women wildland fire crew in Alaska

Joining Alaska’s first all-women wildland fire crew further kindled an interest in ecology and firefighting for one Wittenberg University senior.

“There aren’t many women in wildland firefighting,” said Olivia Lawrence, a Clark County native and 2019 graduate of Springfield High School.

Lawrence and six other women spent last summer in Alaska, hosted by the National Park Service in a program through the Student Conservation Association. The crew trained for weeks to acquire skills and certifications, including CPR, wilderness first aid and firefighting.

The roving crew traveled throughout the state, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Aleutian Islands and Denali National Park. Lawrence also was sent to an active wildfire in the northern part of Alaska, within the Arctic Circle. No roads exist to the village, and she had to be flown in.

“It’s such a different lifestyle up there,” she said.

Lawrence, who is majoring in environmental science, first became interested in the work when she was invited by a Wittenberg professor to a prescribed burn in 2021 at Kirby Preserve at Old Reid Park.

“It kind of sparked a passion in me for what it means to take care of the earth,” she said.

The professor, John Ritter, said that prescribed burns are a form of fire management by reducing the amount of invasive woody species, and they also return nutrients to the soil. Lawrence’s participation set her apart from other candidates applying for the Alaska program.

“Olivia was front and center in interest and stepped forward to take an active role in it,” he said.

Ritter, who is a professor of geology and the director of environmental science at the university, is proud that his student took advantage of the opportunity to join the fire crew.

Lawrence learned real-world techniques and skills that can’t be taught by books alone, Ritter said.

“It’s an experience that becomes formative,” he said. “It opens your eyes to possibilities.”

Lawrence, who turned 21 while she was in Alaska, plans to apply for additional wildland firefighting jobs as well as positions in the field of fire ecology.

While it was difficult to move away from her support system and live in tents for three months, Lawrence in return made lifelong friends and garnered the support of the many people she met.

“I haven’t traveled much in my life,” Lawrence said. “It’s just great to see so many different things about the world and the different ways people live.”

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