Understanding Fire Hero Image

blazing her own trail 

For Humboldt State student Tenaya Wood, fighting wildfire is a way of life. 

find out how growing up in a firefighting family and her education at the CSU are fueling her future.

Tenaya Wood was born into a firefighting family. Her father, Rock Wood, was a smokejumper, helitack superintendent and engine captain; her mother, Cynthia Wood, was one of the first women firefighters on a U.S. Forest Service initial attack fire crew. Together, her parents started their ow​n firefighting company, Wood’s Fire & Em​ergency Services, based in the Plumas National Forest in northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Now a first-generation student majoring in ​forestry at Humboldt State University, Wood had already spent countless hours in the world of firefighting before going to college. Even when she was too young to fight fires herself, she’d work at her parents’ company to learn about the financial and operational sides of the business.

Rock, Tenaya and Cynthia Wood work together at their company, Wood's Fire & Emergency Services. When not contracted as a resource to fight a state or federal wildfire, the company performs prescribed burns and brush-clearing services to help protect structures and communities. Tenaya's father wanted to attend Humboldt State, but was unable to. The fact that she's a first-generation student there means a lot to her and her family, she says.

“I always visited my parents out on burns growing up,” remembers Wood. “As a kid, I remember waking to find 20 firefighters sleeping on my living room floor because they got in from a fire at 11 o'clock the night before."

Hazel Kelly at Calstate.edu spoke to Wood about her inborn passion for fighting and managing wildfire and how her experiences in both the field and the classroom are helping to prepare her for her career.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Wood uses a driptorch for controlled burns, such as a prescribed burn designed to remove excess forest fuel buildup or recreate natural cycles of fire in an ecosystem.

Wood uses a driptorch (shown above) for controlled burns, such as a prescribed burn designed to remove excess forest fuel buildup or recreate natural cycles of fire in an ecosystem.

Hazel Kelly: What do you remember about the first fire you worked on?

Tenaya Wood: As soon as I turned 18, I finished all the classes that I needed and joined my parents’ company. From the minute that I started doing it, I was hooked. My very first fire was a 36-hour shift—an initial attack fire on top of a ridge. I got to spot the fire myself with binoculars, in a lightning storm. It was really cool to have that starting moment, to see it happen and follow it all the way through until we were relieved by another crew, although it was pretty much out at that point.

Kelly: What’s one thing most people probably don’t know about working with wildfire?

Wood: After an area of wildland is destroyed by fire, it gives the land a little bit of a rest. It's like Mother Nature's way of showing that she's still in control. Honestly, those are some of the most beautiful places in a weird way. The places where there are no pine needles left and they're just charred candlesticks with no branches left on the trees, or maybe not even any trees left. Those are beautiful places to walk through, especially a couple months after a fire, because you start seeing the pioneer species—the first ones to come back—re-sprouting, and you see animals walking through.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Wood currently works as an engine boss and prescribed fire advisor when not attending classes at Humboldt State.

Kelly: Fighting wildfire is, of course, incredibly exhausting, both physically and psychologically. How do you keep going?

Wood: It’s just all of the little things. I'll come out on the top of the mountain after a physically demanding hike and see just a gorgeous view and look over and see my "brothers" all smiling. That's a really cool thing. A lot of the views are really good and make a hard hike worth it.

Of course there are times that you're sitting in a parking lot for six hours waiting for an assignment. But then there are times that you know that you made a difference, because you see it on the map the next day. A structure we weren't sure we would be able to save turned up as safe the next day at briefing, and that was because we had led a dozer and crew around for 18 hours the day before. With help of the handcrew and my engine crew, the bulldozer was able to dig a secure fireline that created a boundary around the home and prevented the fire from spreading.

When people find out that a structure was saved, or after they’re let back into their homes and they come find you somehow, or send you cards, it definitely makes it worth it. We see the aftereffects of our work.

tough work, big rewards 

Wood shares an experience during the July Complex Fire in 2014 that became a defining moment in her career so far.

Wood shares an experience she had while on a fire that became one of those moments when she knew she was on the right path.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Wood as a child with her father as they set a controlled burn. Photo courtesy of Tenaya Wood

Kelly: What was it like growing up in a firefighting family?

Wood: When I was a kid I would always run out to the truck and meet my dad when he came in from a fire. I would want to carry something, so he would give me his helmet and I would run around in his yellow fire shirt. He would say, “Get out of that—it's all smoky and sweaty,” but I always liked the smell because it smelled like smoke.

And when my dad left for a fire, my mom and I would walk him out to the end of the driveway and wave to him until we couldn't see his truck anymore.

I remember on one of my birthdays my dad came home in the water tender and pulled a new bike out of the sleeper cab that he had stopped along the way and got me.

My parents would also bring me back commemorative fire t-shirts. Companies will sell t-shirts with the fire name and month and year and some custom artwork. I still have some, and now I always bring back shirts for them. It’s a fun tradition and a way to commemorate your time on that fire.

Kelly: What is the relationship of local Native Americans to wildfire?

Wood: Up in the Klamath, California, area, we do a prescribed burn every year on Yurok Indian tribal land. The tribes understand the need for fire and the balance of it. For example, they’ll say, “We need to burn here because we need hazel branches to make our baskets, or we need bear grass and it's used for this purpose, or we need berries for this.”

For my senior undergraduate project, I’m studying fire's effects on hazel bush regeneration on the Yurok Reservation. The tribe uses hazel for basketry and they’re having challenges with the bushes not growing well, due to encroaching poison oak, blackberries and conifers.

I recently put together a crewthe first of its kind in the nationto implement a prescribed burn on specific areas of Yurok land where hazel grows and began a study to measure the effects of fire intensity on hazel regeneration. We monitored the duration of the plants' exposure to fire, the temperature reached, etc. Now we will monitor those burned areas for regrowth to determine the ideal fire intensity needed for the hazel to regrow healthy and straight—important for the Yurok's basket-weaving purposes. The whole point of this burn is for cultural use and hands-on training for participants.

I'm finishing up my bachelor’s in forestry at Humboldt State with an emphasis in wildland fire management and a minor in Native American studies. I hope to go on to a master’s in fire ecology with an emphasis in cultural fire use—how tribes utilize fire. Ideally, I'll be able to see [how] other tribes in the Southwest are utilizing things too. It would be really cool to tie fire and Native American studies together, countrywide.

Shown here are baskets woven with the wood of hazel trees grown on the Yurok Indian tribal land. Wood is studying how these trees regenerate after fire.

Kelly: Tell us about your involvement in the development of a new degree program at Humboldt State.

Wood: There are one or two tribal colleges in the nation that teach forestry, but there's no forestry degree with a tribal forestry concentration from a four-year institution. Humboldt State's Forestry Department Chair, Dr. David Greene, along with local tribes and others, saw the need to be able to help tribes learn how to manage their own lands for wildfire and give them the option of getting a bachelor's of science, or becoming a certified forester, without feeling like they're betraying their tribe by not doing Native American studies.

So I reached out to different tribes around here and different professors and just got their take on what they wanted to see and what issues they wanted to address. I helped suggest classes that would be required, both from forestry and from Native American studies, that would make up a tribal forestry degree. Some of those issues would include water, fire and land use. I also surveyed current students about their interest in the possibility of the program. I had to get 40 or more students to say that they would consider the program if it were offered. Before two days of surveying were finished, I already had 60 signatures.

Native American culture has such a big influence up here in Humboldt and people are definitely realizing the need to address tribal forestry. I think they're just realizing that it's a necessary thing, just like women in fire becoming a necessary thing.

(Editor’s note: The bachelor’s of science in forestry with a concentration in tribal forestry at Humboldt State is currently in development and has not yet been authorized by the university. If approved, it would be available in 2021 or after. )

Wood with the Humboldt State Student Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE) chapter preparing for a prescribed burn assignment.

Kelly: You’re helping other students at Humboldt State get experience in wildfire. Why is that so important to you?

Wood: The Student Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE) is a national organization. I joined my first year at Humboldt. It was a really small club, but they were passionate about fire. Last year, our club had grown to 42 members.

At the time I joined, I had more fire experience than most of the other members. So I started volunteering with them. We went to the Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX) burn for the first time and I urged members to go on the TREX burns on their own. Then we did some trainings and résumé-building workshops and I helped people apply for fire crews. This year, I have four other officers with me and they all have experience in fire at least one summer, at a minimum.

Our SAFE chapter is trying to bridge the gap between field experience and education, because we kept having students ask us, “Why do I need to take this class? How does this relate to fire?” And they'll get school credit for going to these burns too, so it's really cool. I kept meeting people that either had education or experience, but not both, so I kind of bridged the gap between those to help people make connections.

(Editor’s note: The interview with Tenaya Wood has been edited for length.) 

This article is the third in a series on the  California State University's role in understanding, preventing and fighting California's devastating wildfires.  Read our previous coverage on the CSU’s role in understanding fire to better predict and prevent it  and get to know a dedicated wildland fire crew  comprised mostly of CSU students and alumni.

Story: Hazel Kelly

photoGRAPHY & Videography: PATRICK RECORD; courtesy of tenaya wood

Share this story