Harassment, rape and retaliation: What one woman endured within the US Forest Service

Living on Earth
Abby Bolt with chainsaw

Abby Bolt has been in the U.S. Forest Service for 21 years, during which she experienced hazing, sexual harassment and rape. She, along with many other women from the agency, are starting to speak out and to fight an entrenched, male-dominated culture that looks the other way.

Abby Bolt

The #MeToo movement has brought to light the widespread incidence of sexual misconduct in many arenas of women’s lives — and it's spread to the US Forest Service, whose chief, Tony Tooke recently resigned amid allegations of sexual wrongdoing.

Tooke quit just a few days after PBS Newshour ran special segments about abuse and harassment in the agency, focusing on some of the women who have filed complaints and suits.

One of those women, Abby Bolt, is a battalion chief in the firefighting division based at Sequoia National Forest. Instead of addressing complaints, Bolt says, some supervisors in the Forest Service protect the harassers and punish the women who speak up.

Bolt has been fighting fires for the Forest Service for 21 years, doing some of the most difficult jobs one can do. She started off with hotshots, an elite firefighting crew that battles challenging wildfires in remote places; became a helicopter rappeler; went into hand crews and engines; and now specializes in fire prevention and public education.

Bolt loves her job.

“Even the worst days, the most miserable days, when you're just trudging along in the ash doing the same menial work, looking for little hot rocks all day long, are really memorable and great,” she says.

She also loves the camaraderie, teamwork and friendships. But all along, Bolt says, she has had to endure a “good ol’ boy” culture in the agency that led to harassment, hazing and, tragically, sexual violence.

In her first years, she dealt with inappropriate teasing, such as porn taped to her buggy seat, ashes flicked into her hair, a backpack suddenly full of rocks or a dead animal. This treatment would last for days on end.

“I was the first girl on a crew that hadn't had a woman in a long time, and they just didn't really know any better, I think,” Bolt says. “And I just wanted to be there. I was so in love with the job, and that first year my goal was to never, ever let them make me cry, and I never did.”

Bolt did notify her supervisor about some of the behavior, but she also didn’t want to be the only girl and “instantly be a problem.” So she tried to defuse a lot of it on her own. But there was one particular guy who just would not stop.

“He would either physically shove me or touch me or throw things at me or basically dump all of his work on to me,” Bolt explains. “He would drop things at my feet that he was supposed to be carrying — just little silly schoolyard things — I just got so frustrated.”

She went to her supervisor to ask for help, and he told her she was on her own: “Do what you need to do,” he said.

Finally, she did.

“There was a day when he did something to me out in the middle of a fire, and I remember I was so mad and couldn't get him to back off. And I did smack him with my tool to get him to back off,” Bolt says. “That’s just kind of it. You take care of yourself, and that's what I was told.”

The guys on the crew “rallied around [her] like brothers,” she says, and ended up sticking up for her. “They handled that guy in the end.” 

Towards the end of the work season, during exit interviews, she told all of the crew supervisors about the incidents. She says told them, “‘Just know this is going on and that I'm not going to complain, because I love this job. But I just want you guys to know, so you watch out for it in the future.’ I was pretty much blackballed for a long time because I said that.”

Years later, Bolt got a job offer on another hotshot crew, and one of her earlier supervisors called and told them they shouldn't hire her.

“He had no reason to do that, no reason at all, except for I did stand up and say, ‘Hey, you guys could have some problems with women on this crew, if you're not careful,’" she says. "I just gave them a fair warning, and years later, he made sure to ruin a job for me.”

This was all frustrating and enraging, but an incident in 2012 went far beyond previous ones. Toward the end of an assignment in Wyoming and Colorado, Bolt was sexually assaulted and raped by a firefighter who was not a member of her team.

“It was a violent situation by somebody that I was an acquaintance with, and I never understood how that could happen or what you do in that situation,” she says. “I just I remember negotiating with him and pleading with him, and long story short, I was covered in bruises. I was in shock, literally in shock and shame, and I didn't know what to do. I knew it was wrong, and I knew I needed to do something about it and report it, but then all the thoughts in your mind of what's going to happen to you in the agency and in the fire service — that will rip your career apart.”

Bolt says she struggled with the decision to report. 

“We had a team of about 56 people there, and once I reported it, an investigation would have shot through the roof," Bolt says. “That whole team would have been stood down for fire assignments, and they would have been questioned, and it would have brought so much darkness to so many good people. I didn't want everybody else to have to pay for what I went through. … Imagine the investigation: It’s not just a police investigation. We're talking federal, all the agencies, in different states. It would have been a mess.”

Ultimately, Bolt filed a police report, but she couldn't bring herself to report the incident to the agency. “I knew it would ruin everything, and it would be easier if I just kept moving forward,” she says.

The police pleaded with her to press charges. But she was still traveling around fighting fires and wanted to be known in the agency for her abilities, not for being a victim of sexual assault. “They kept telling me, ‘You've got to do something or this will happen again, or maybe he's doing this to other women.’ I was thinking about his family and his children that I knew that he had, and I didn't want to ruin anybody else's life.”

So, instead of letting the police protect her or going through the judicial system, which she didn't trust at the time, she confided in a friend on a hotshot crew who knew her attacker. “He told me, ‘Abby, don't worry, we will watch out for you, and you give us the word and we will take care of him, and we will keep him away from you,’” Bolt says. “It's a bunch of brothers in this job. It's a bunch of big brothers that are just amazing and, like their little sister, they made sure that I was protected. We would go to fires and if [my attacker] would be around, they would eat their meals with me, they would keep an eye on me, and they did put him in check a couple of times, and had to pull him aside, and so they were my justice. It ended up being kind of a brotherly justice that I had."

But then, in 2013, more tragedy followed. Bolt’s friend and his entire crew, except for one, died in a fire. She lost her friends — and her justice.

"The fact that it all happened isn't what gets me so much right now and why I've come forward about it,” Bolt says. “It’s the fact that that I knew I wouldn't be able to trust in the agency to take care of me if I reported it. … They start making the person making a complaint look like the problem, because it's a lot easier if you get rid of that problem than if you admit that there's actually a problem on your unit or a problem with one of your leaders.”

In 2014, Bolt finally filed a complaint. But she found no advocates within the agency who "are truly on the employee's side.”

“It's really tough, when you file a complaint, to know what your deadlines are and really understand all of that, because you also are expected to do your regular job,” she explains. “But the agency [has] endless resources to help them. So, I basically just had to let things go, because I needed to get on with the season and being a supervisor. But then the retaliation started.”

A lot of professional opportunities were taken away, Bolt says. For example, she used to teach at respected fire academies, and the agency wouldn't let her teach anymore. They took her off all the committees she served on. They moved her office miles away from that of others on her team. “There are a lot of opportunities that are critical for your career and your advancement, and they were just slowly taking all of those away,” she says.

In 2015, Bolt filed a retaliation complaint. But this, too, went nowhere. “I'd reach out to our civil rights folks and tell them, literally, what was happening in my office,” she says. “I would literally write e-mails that said, ‘Please help me,’ as blatantly as I could, so maybe they would read them and say, ‘Maybe we should check in on her and see what's going on.' And [these emails] would get ignored for a long time.”

Now that she is further along in her career and in more of a leadership position, Bolt has told four supervisors in writing and in person about her experience in the hostile work environment and “the hazardous behavior that was happening underneath them with a couple of our fire leaders.”

“I told [them] that eventually this kind of behavior is going to bleed over to a fire,” Bolt says. “The behaviors they're displaying in the office are going to come out on the side of that mountain in the fire, because maybe they don't answer the radio when they should, just to be mean; or maybe they don't fill an order when they should or call that helicopter when they should, just because they're retaliating — and eventually it's going to get somebody killed.”

Bolt says her family has given her the strength to endure this long struggle. “If it weren't for the folks that love me, I don't know what I would do right now. There are so many gals in fire. And the emails and the phone calls and the messages I've gotten since I spoke out on PBS: There will be one that will come, and she will confess to me the pain that she's been in, what she's dealt with, and she's thanking me for speaking out, because she can’t, because she's scared. I'll get one of those and I think, ‘That is the reason I did this. That's the reason I'm speaking out.’ And then I'll get another one and I think, “That's the reason.”

“Quite honestly, when I go into a classroom to teach about fire prevention, there will still be little girls who walk up to me and say, ‘I didn't know girls can do this.’ And it breaks my heart. I'm like, ‘You guys, it's 2018. What do you mean you didn't know little girls could do this? You can be anything you want to be.’”

“I realize that anything I do now to help bring progress is going to help some little girl someday that I'm never going to meet,” Bolt says. “And if I lose everything right now, but it is going to make things a little bit better, then I'm good with that, because that's how strongly I stand behind this.”

The US Forest Service declined to comment on specific cases, citing privacy concerns. But in an email to PBS NewsHour said the agency said it takes “all reports of sexual harassment very seriously.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.