Melissa Forder, national fire planner with the National Park Service at the National Interagency Fire Center. Photo courtesy of Melissa Forder.
BY MELISSA FORDER, THAO TRAN, ERIN MCDUFF
“Instead of focusing on bullet points for my resume, I look at what I can do to open the doors for others.”
Melissa Forder has worked in wildland fire at the National Park Service for over 20 years. She began her fire career in 2000 at Shenandoah National Park, where she spent eight years leading a field crew in the collection of fire effects monitoring data. She then became the fire ecologist and fire planner for the Northeast Region. In 2015, she served as the deputy regional fire management officer for Interior Region 2 and the Southeast Region. In this role, she oversaw the fire planning, fire ecology, and fuels program for 63 units across the region. In 2020, she became the national fire planner. And during the summer of 2021, she served in a detail as the operations program lead. She also serves as a Type 1 planning section chief on the Southern Area “Red” Incident Management Team.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am of course extremely proud of my two daughters for their accomplishments and the young women they are becoming.
In my career, I am most proud of providing opportunities for women to grow and excel. I am involved with the leadership team for the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange, which provides hands-on training in a supportive environment for women in wildland fire. I am also involved with the leadership team for the Women’s Employee Resource Group, which supports and empowers women in the National Park Service and has over 800 members! This work involved a community of women and male allies coming together to promote and support women’s achievements, find solutions to overcome barriers, and improve equity and inclusion.
The most impactful thing has been seeing the people I have mentored succeed and take on leadership roles in the National Park Service, at other land management agencies, and in academia. Those women now serve as role models and mentors for others.
How can we better support women in wildland fire?
Listen first. We need to create open, transparent communication channels for women from entry to senior levels of the organization. Women will continue to leave wildland fire positions if they do not feel supported or that they belong. We often turn to recruitment numbers and diversity statistics to solve problems, but it is also important to focus on valuing and welcoming those with different backgrounds and identities.
What advice do you wish you had received when you first started?
Don’t let someone else define your career path. Your path should be your own and not be replicated to match that of someone else.
Don’t limit yourself as “just” working in fire ecology, operations, education, or other silos. Step forward to embrace learning new skills and taking opportunities in all aspects of wildland fire. The biggest thing you can do for your career is to ask for (and say yes to) opportunities that differentiate your experience from others.
Finally, work-life balance is different for everyone. Rather than trying to achieve someone else's version of balance, you're better off trying to figure out what balance looks like in your own life. We can't put different parts of our lives into these neatly packaged compartments. Give yourself grace and know that you are doing the best you can at that point in time.
What does leadership mean to you?
My understanding of leadership has grown over the years. Early training in wildland fire often leads us to define leadership based on how loud the command presence is. However, leadership needs to be situational.
Leadership is ensuring everyone feels safe, welcomed, and valued when contributing their thoughts. Our perspectives are formed by our experiences, which differ from one another and may be influenced by the differences in our backgrounds. It can be challenging to accept that your truth may not be another person’s truth. Successful leadership promotes a diverse workforce and allows for diversity of thought in order to develop innovative solutions to complex problems.
Melissa Forder is the national fire planner for the National Park Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Thao Tran is a senior government professional with robust experience overseeing budget, program management, and strategic planning. She previously served as Budget Officer for the Department of the Interior's Office of Wildland Fire and is committed to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in the federal government.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.