By Breanne Massey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
After serving the nation as a structural firefighter for several years, Ashley O’Neil began to notice a gap in the industry where she worked that affected female fighters adversely.
The 34-year-old Ktunaxa member could not find safe, comfortable and environmentally-friendly protective clothing to wear on the frontlines.
It didn’t take long for the Aq’am Community member, who now lives in Fairmont, to realize that she wasn’t alone.
“I’ve seen other women out on the fireline struggling just as much as I was to find clothing that fits properly,” O’Neil told the Pioneer by phone. “We want to stay safe and comfortable, and you can’t do that. Not if you’re focused on what you’re wearing. If it’s too big, it’s not safe.”
The frustration of finding protective equipment that fits properly ignited a passion in O’Neil.
Between 2017 and 2018, she began conducting research to learn more about what materials are fire-resistant and what chemicals are used to make protective garb safe.
O’Neil discovered that the chemicals being utilized in fire-resistant protective clothing are not environmentally friendly, and some of them raised alarm bells for her from a safety perspective. As a result, she continued to search for alternative solutions that would fit her needs and appeal to female firefighters throughout the nation.
“I found out that 100 per cent cotton is fire resistant, so I had my fabric specially weaved,” said O’Neil, while indicating that most bras are made out of synthetic fabrics that could melt in a fire.
“And, my fabric is biodegradable. Gear doesn’t last very long. It lasts one or two tours. Four, maybe with a lot of stitching, so if we’re depositing the clothes back into the earth, why not put something good into it?”
O’Neil, who is now the owner of AshFireWear in the Columbia Valley, has designed an upcoming clothing line that’s expected to launch in 2021.
“The clothing is designed for women, but we also make clothing for men too because we want to protect our brothers,” she said, noting pants and shirts for both genders will soon be available to firefighters in the community.
Currently, O’Neil has industrial masks available for miners, engineers and railway workers as well as “Town and Country” non-medical face masks for community members that would like to support her new business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Neil is currently a volunteer firefighter for the Columbia Valley Fire and Rescue team and is in the process of studying to become an instructor at Wildland Firefighters, where she helps to recruit firefights from reserves in B.C. during community visits. However, recruitment and training sessions with Wildland have been cancelled and postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Neil credits the Aq’am Community as well as the Ktunaxa Nation Council for providing her with small business loans to get started on this initiative last fall.
“The KNC has supported me from the very beginning,” she said. “They’re one of the first people I went to for loans, even my band was really good. Aq’am gave me a grant too.”
To contact O’Neil about AshFireWear, please e-mail her at: email@example.com or visit ktunaxaready.com/listings/listing/ashfirewear/