This former wildland fire-fighter turned agency leader inspires all Forest Service employees, and especially women, to follow their dreams. Denise Blankenship grew up in the Pacific Northwest and began her career at Intel Corporation with the intent of becoming an engineer. After a sudden company-wide layoff and declines in the high-tech industry, she set off for mountain living and landed a Forest Service job on a Mt. Hood National Forest trail crew.
After graduating from Wildland Fire Apprentice Academy #2, she settled in on the Sierra National Forest to begin 17 years of working all aspects of fire management including the forest’s fuels officer. In 2008, she transitioned to the Bureau of Land Management California as the deputy fire management officer working in the fuels management and budget arena and pursuing qualifications to become the air operations branch director as a Type 1 Interagency Incident Management Team.
In 2013 she returned to the Forest Service as the assistant director for fire, fuels and aviation management for the Pacific Northwest region. In 2015, she began a detail opportunity in Washington, D.C. as the deputy director of the Fire and Aviation Management staff and later that year accepted the job as a permanent position.
Passionate about setting the stage for the next 20 years of fire management, she is a leader in the agency’s efforts to open more doors for women to work for and become future leaders in the Forest Service.
Please share your career journey starting out as a firefighter and climbing the ladder to become the second in command for the agency’s fire and aviation management mission.
Many great professionals pushed me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to a broad range of challenges and leadership styles. As uncomfortable as that was at times, I learned valuable lessons about myself, my values and the integrity I have for my job. Leadership intrigued me and the longer I worked in fire, the more I transitioned into leadership roles, both operationally and within our fuels management staff.
Why did you pursue an often dangerous career in fighting wildfires?
My first fire season defined my career. It was hard, dirty, smoky and exciting. The tempo suited me. I enjoyed teamwork and leadership and the sense of confidence and comradery that was building as my fire career evolved. Barriers did not exist in my mind nor did I have the impression that I could not or should not do something. My father used to say ‘there is no such word as can’t.’ I believed him.
What are some of the benefits of serving on the front line?
You get a hands-on education in forestry in a wide variety of ecosystems throughout the United States and abroad. You see some of the most fantastic landscapes, fire behavior, weather and natural events. You indirectly and sometimes directly help people during their most difficult times. There are many training, team building, leadership and domestic and international opportunities to suit everyone’s interests.
Please share your most memorable experience as a former firefighter?
The harshest reality was my first experience with fatalities. It was a somber, life-changing event and a difficult wake-up call to how serious firefighting is. It strengthens one’s resolve to be the best at what we do so that we do our best not to repeat those situations. It reinforces within us the true strength of nature and that we are simply working within the ebb and flow of natural processes. The choice remains to be smart about where you should be and when you should let nature do its work.
What advice or words of wisdom can you share with the next generation of female firefighters?
Believe in yourself and never give up. Keep your head up and learn all you can. Be a team player and a leader. There are a lot of opportunities waiting for you but you have to be prepared to work hard, challenge yourself, and be willing to be uncomfortable as you step out into the unknown. Most of all, have fun!
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location, your name and contact information and descriptive comments about why you are submitting the nomination.