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Ashley O’Neil: All Fired Up for Change and Community

Ashley O’Neil, wildland firefighter, entrepreneur and community champion, is changing the game for women and Indigenous people in firefighting

Whenever Ashley O’Neil runs into an old friend and tells them she’s been a fire fighter for nearly two decades, they say: “I’m not surprised. You’ve been talking about that since you were a little kid.”

Ashley O’Neil, wildland firefighter, crew trainer, and principal at Ashfirewear.

She became a structural fire fighter 17 years ago and fell in love with the trade. She went into schools to inspire youth, became a deputy chief, and worked in Saskatchewan, BC and Montana.

Cultural burning in BC

After ten years of that, she took a two-week wildland fire-fighting course that changed her life. Her attention has shifted to preparing prescribed, cultural burning crews in her community—ʔaq̓am (pronounced Aqam), a Ktunaxa Nation near Cranbrook.

“Long before colonization, native people used to burn on a regular basis because fire is part of the ecosystem,” she says. “Fire regrew trees, medicine plants and berry bushes. Fire opens the canopies so grass can grow and feed animals, our traditional food sources.”

In 1874, the federal government outlawed burning in BC for Indigenous people, thus more than 500,000 hectares of fuel—dry underbrush that spreads fire at an alarming rate—has accumulated.

“This is why BC has megafires,” O’Neil says. “They rage through the land and destroy everything except invasive species. Cultural crews burn low-intensity fires at a slow pace, so we don’t have these problems.”

Through ʔaq̓am Community Enterprises (ACE), a community development corporation, O’Neil started a company called ʔa•kinq’uku (Fire in English), which recruits and trains initial attack type 2 wildfire crews working in the ʔaq̓am Nation through a contract with BC Wildfire Service. It also trains mitigation crews and teaches FireSmart practices within the community—all using traditional Indigenous practices.


Prior to fighting fires, O’Neil worked in the oil patch, where she quickly realized that women-specific PPE—especially the fire-resistant (FR) kind—did not exist.

She got to work on Ashfirewear—an eco-friendly line of PPE made of pure cotton with a non-toxic, biodegradable FR treatment. Ashfirewear is perfect for women of all shapes and sizes working in firefighting, mining, oil and gas, mechanical trades, hydro and construction. The line offers both coverall styles and pants and shirts—all National Fire Protection Agency 70E and 2112 certified for fire-resistance. And her market is growing.

“When I started in early 2000, I was only woman in the fire department and later in the wildland crew,” she says. “Now, I have to wait for a shower.”

Partnering with City of Cranbrook

The City of Cranbrook and ʔaq̓am are engaged in an ambitious economic development initiative centered around a utility-grade renewable energy project known as Natanik. This initiative also encompasses more than 100 acres of employment lands adjacent to the Canadian Rockies International Airport in Cranbrook.

O’Neill is an advocate and dreams of developing a center of excellence in firefighting—where men and women could become certified as wildland fire fighters, mitigation specialists and burn bosses. Ideally, this training would be affordable, intensive and done with the latest and best technology.

It’s easy to see that if she sets her mind to it, that centre is as good as built.

“I’ve worked in what many call a ‘man’s world’ for a long time,” she says. “The boundary between genders in work is opening,” she says. “But we still have room to grow.”

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