21 Things I Learned As a Woman Wildland Firefighter
Fighting fires - How do you even get into that?
I get asked that quite frequently. Where I grew up in northeast Washington though, it was not an unfamiliar job pursuit. Neither was working at the gold mine. # small town life
After graduating high school I began working at our local ranger district in the silviculture department for the summer before heading off to college in the fall.
Silviculture - the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, and quality of forest vegetation for the full range of forest resource objectives.
I LOVED it. I was outside all day (even though the early mornings were not always my favorite), recorded data, and was a small help in giving the Colville National Forest a bright future.
Come the spring of 2014 though, it had come to the point where it was freaking expensive to fly back and forth to the PNW for the summers, so I stayed put in Kentucky as I finished out my degree. Not being able to go back and work for the Forest Service for another summer was heartbreaking.
I cried my eyes out. Sobbing. Like a toddler.
*fast forward though my life a little bit*
When I finished the long five years earning my bachelor's degree I thought,
"Well - I have no idea what I want to do." typical post-graduation thought
Side note: I am an ENFP (thanks to the Myers Briggs personality test). Not only was I a graduate still figuring out my life, as an ENFP - I love everything. I have so many interests and passions that it is hard to stick to one single field/job for very long.
What did my Extraverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving self do?
Got my apartment sub-leased, couch surfed for a month, packed my Kia Soul with whatever fit and drove across the country to Arizona where my parents live. And prior to heading back west, I knew I missed fresh air and honest work - so I shot a few applications out; fish hatchery tech in Alaska, trails up keep in southern California, and a fire suppression job in Happy Jack, Arizona.
The day I crossed the New Mexico/Arizona state line, I received a call from the fire district office in Happy Jack.
*cue sun rays breaking through the clouds and a glitter spectacular*
Universe - you've outdone yourself
And with that, I was staged at my parent's for a few weeks before driving up to the Coconino NF in northern Arizona to begin a new adventure.
Below: a few images from my two summers in silviculture in Republic, Washington.
Now that you know how I got into fighting fires.
The list compiled does not even begin to cover all the skills and tricks I familiarized myself with during the summer. There are many different positions and fields of work within wildland fire. With that being said, someone working on an engine will have a different perspective than a first time fuels crew member or a hotshot's seventh year.
Brief overview of what I did:
Job Title - Forestry Aid (Fire Suppression), type 2 wildland firefighter
Crew 9 Fuels, based in Happy Jack, Arizona on the Coconino National Forest
Also, as a few of my co-workers and I were laughing and reflecting about "what we learned on a hand crew", we realized many things we learned pertained to us as women. You'll see what I mean later. And hence the post title.
Whether you are interested in pursuing this line of work or simply intrigued by what we do:
Here you go, my friends. I give you...
21 Things I Learned as a Woman Wildland Firefighter
1. Don't Be Last
Be efficient, productive, and timely. As my high school driver's ed/history teacher/basketball coach always said,
"If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late."
Like any other sub-culture or job field, there is a separate language.
A small example of some of the terms I had no idea what they meant or what to do with them. But eventually I grew into the culture and was able to talk and act like a local by the end of the season.
For the dead-zones in Utah, the down time between dinner and lights out, and jamming out on the way back to station or camp to finish out a sixteen hour day. Music is key. Some crew trucks have standards and you might be kicked off the aux. But on Crew 9, we rotated DJ power and listened to everything under the sun - so make sure you have a music library on your phone or a separate iPod/MP3.
FYI - the limit DOES exist on Spotify downloads.
The next four cover the "essentials"
4. Boxer Briefs
Yes, that's right.
Men's boxer briefs - they change the game.
Your upper thighs feel more protected, while also keeping them a little warmer on the chilly fall days. The higher waistband also prevents chaffing from your nomex pants or sweaty shirt. It is also WAY easier to get ready in the mornings at fire camp. First, picture this: sleeping on the ground surrounded by fifteen or more men within a close proximity. With panties, I would be squirming around in my sleeping bag trying to slip my pants on for a day of work. With briefs, they are essentially like wearing long inseam spandex. Now when the 0545 alarm goes off, I can hop out of my sleeping bag and be standing while putting my nomex on. Life became SO much easier.
And you can never pack enough underwear or socks on a travel assignment (which is when you are gone for about two weeks as a resource for another state/forest). You do not want to weigh down your bags with unnecessary items, but you will thank yourself later for packing a clean pair of underwear for every day that you are gone. Even if you do not change them every day..
5. Fem Hygiene
Also something you can never have enough of - pads and tampons.
After the first summer of fighting fires, I preferred pads over tampons for work. Stash them in your pack, your pockets, day pack, two-week bag, and your bin on the crew truck. ALWAYS be prepared.
(Did anyone catch that pun I threw down?)
Later in the season a fellow woman fire fighter suggested using a diva cup. I thought boxer briefs were a game changer, so if she thought diva cups changed her life then - well, there will be an edit to this list next summer. And considering the environment we work in, diva cups would make bathroom breaks WAY less complicated.
EDIT 3/28/19: About a year after publishing this, I purchased the Lena menstrual cup. Personally, it’s not for me right now! Which is unfortunate because I can envision how efficient and less wasteful it would be. I’ve recently switched to using 100% cotton non-applicator tampons though; so if I’m just using tampons while working, I can have worry-free, biodegradable bathroom breaks this summer. Sometimes I’ll wear a pad or liner too for back-up protection.
And yes, you can work ferociously (and harder than some of the guys) even while surviving a long and awful visit from Mother Nature. It is a struggle, but it can be done.
6. Stash Snacks
There were instances when what was originally planned to be a moderate day of working for eight hours turns into six hours of over-time and my lunch gone by 1500 (aka 3:00pm). To prevent hanger on trips back to station and for any unplanned circumstances - have extra food. My go-to's were applesauce, gold fish, Clif bars, and protein shakes. It is also valuable to have extra snacks when you are on a resource order. Like the days there is a reuben sandwich in the lunch, or third day in a row of spicy pickles? I was always grateful to have a stash of gold fish in the truck bin. Or crew members willing to trade their Oreo's and hard boiled eggs for your sandwich and pickle. Negotiating skills are also a very valuable asset for this job if you want to thrive and not survive. # snack master
7. Cards, a Good Book, and Tennis Balls
Make sure you have a deck of cards, one or two good (preferably small in size) books, and a package of tennis balls somewhere in the truck. Trust me.
8. There Is a Wake Up Time
At camp while traveling, there is a wake up time to start the day. You wake up at that time. No earlier. And unless you are Speed Racer, no later (refer back to #1).
9. Follow the Chain of Command
Just do it.
10. Put Your Lunch in Your Pack
To me this was one of the most important things I took away from the first season of fire. Being on a crew is all about routine. Putting my lunch in my pack every morning at camp before the crew boss came back from briefing was one more step towards being ready for anything the day threw at us. Along with work ethic, I believe your morning routine and work habits are what will make or break you in this field.
11. Get Verizon
During my first resource order, we ended up traveling to Happy Camp, California to work on a fire on the Klamath National Forest. AT&T has absolutely no service there. Luckily one of my co-workers let me text my parents on her phone to let them know I was alive and not ignoring their messages or phone calls. As the summer progressed, I noticed Verizon had way more coverage than any other cell provider no matter where we were working.
12. A Solid Day Pack - Major Key
I was definitely not prepared when I accepted the job.
A day pack is something you will have with you every day for work. It may hold your PT clothes, a book, tooth brush, water bottle... Essentially, your essentials for travel assignments and day-to-day work life. That was a lot of essential.
The only backpack I had prior to the season was a large, black Adidas one that I obtained through athletics at the University of Louisville. In track & field, a big back pack was great because it fit everything you needed and could also serve as a back rest/pillow. In fire, not so much. It was constantly bulky even when not filled to capacity, would not fit in the side bin, and was a pain to move around. For next season I invested in an "Eggplant Purple" Osprey pack from REI, which can be used for hikes during the winter and a streamlined, stylish day pack during the summer.
# major key # style
13. Bathroom/Nap Breaks - Take Them
It could be a long time until the next rest break, and no one wants to be around you later in the day if you turn into Moody Judy or Negative Nancy.
It's like being a child again.
14. Don't Be Shy - Just Pull Em Down
Speaking of bathroom breaks. As a woman, peeing requires the pants and underwear to come down. Which means you would want a private space to relieve yourself, right? Let me tell ya - it got exhausting having to walk a hundred miles away to make sure no one could see me stripping down before I peed myself. Stating to the group, "I'm peeing, no one look over here" is the go-to strategy now.
We are all humans, and we all poop and pee. That is honestly one of the best aspects of fire; you do not have to hold back or feel embarrassed about bodily functions. It's natural. Every fart can be released and no burp has to be excused.
15. Do Not Shower - But Shower Every Chance You Get
Seems like a contradiction, right? I'll explain.
Do not shower in the fire camp showers. Unless you get "the oak." Poison oak, that is. I have heard many horror stories; feet fungus, unknown substances on the walls..
Even though the Montana showers, and in general all the camps, were kept up nicely, not showering while on a travel role makes it easier dealing with everyone else that is not keeping the best hygiene. After a few days you get used to the smell of your crew, including your stinky self. Being unbathed also makes the activity of pulling your pants on for the last day of work (and it is the fourteenth day of wearing those pair of nomex) not as gross. My current record is fifteen days without one.
And that first hot, hotel shower? Literally heaven flowing from the plumbing.
There will be portable sinks and such though. One of my crew members and I would go to the wash station together most evenings to brush our teeth and clean our faces. A semblance of clean in the dirty world of fire fighting.
EDIT 3/28/19: After two season I still haven’t showered in the camp showers, but I have taken many “baby wipe bathes”. In my opinion, they are quicker and plenty sufficient so you can spend more time sleeping, calling loved ones, or shooting the shit with your crew at the end of the day.
But if you are staging during a resource order, or get to go back to you living quarters after a long day of digging line - take the opportunity to shower! You might not have the chance to bathe the next day.. or fourteen days.
16. "Happy Camp" Is Not a Happy Place
Humidity. Heat. Mosquitoes. Poison oak. The main reason for setting up a tent was so I could lay naked on top of my thermarest pad in hopes of the sweat evaporating quickly, wishing for a peaceful five to six hours of sleep.
I had always thought so fondly of California.
Beautiful. But so. Much. Sweat...
17. There Is No Need for a Tent Unless Absolutely Necessary
Not setting up a tent saves so much valuable time.
Eight minutes* might not seem very long. But at 0530, those minutes are priceless.
Falling asleep to a starry Montana sky without a tent obstructing your view is also priceless.
*Tent set up and break down time varies from person to person. "Eight minutes" is merely a guesstimate.
18. Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
From getting the truck checks completed, lifting heavy equipment, to tackling a spot fire - we are always working together. It is amazing what a crew can accomplish in a day, even in a few hours! Teamwork really does make the dream work.
19. People Forget They Were Beginners Once
Work can become so ingrained that everything comes natural due to habit. I have witnessed this in other jobs, lecture halls, and even observing parents with their children. In fire the notion of "what do you mean you don't know this *scough*" seemed to be much more prevalent. And this was one of the hardest obstacles to tackle as I was learning throughout the summer.
Originally I ended #19 with, "So as the season progressed, I asked less questions, and leaned more toward the unwritten rule of, 'do what everyone else is doing.'"
A good friend of mine, who I also worked with this summer, stated in a comment on this post, "Screw number 19, ask questions and if they don't like it tell them they need to be a better leader, not an ass." Thank you for reminding me to be honest so everyone, including myself, can grow and understand how that progress can happen.
That original concluding line translates to,
"I learned to only ask certain questions to certain individuals."
And that is not ok.
The more inexperienced you were, the more audacious it was to have an opinion or ask a question. Um, excuse me? I respect the idea of the chain of command. However - if less experienced seasonal employees are expected to be passive, how can improvement occur at the individual, crew, or even district level? If change can not be communicated up the chain of leaders, then how can the concept of expressing concerns and questions be followed through?
Whether I make a career out of Fire & Fuels or only enjoy a few more seasons, I hope that I can katalyze an open-minded approach to leadership, communication, and problem analysis.
"That's just how it's been done" is old school. And honey - this ain't old school anymore. It is 2017 and time for change.
20. Femininity Can and Will Thrive In a Man's World
I am grateful beyond measure that I was able to have two strong women to work with during my first season. It is hard to think how I would look back on the summer if all of us weren't there to build each other up.
Masculinity certainly prevails in fire culture, but you know what counts at the end of the day? Hard work. Grit. Determination. The willingness to learn and be coached. Initiative. Attitude. And moving dirt quickly.
You do not have to be "one of the guys" to succeed in fire.
SIDE NOTE: I have a lot more to say about women in firefighting. That discussion is saved for another post. If you want to dig more into masculinity & femininity in fire, check out Off-Season Reflections.
I am comfortable with myself and all of my bodily functions (i.e. flatulence), and this job has made me feel even more free in my own skin. But that does not mean that I am not feminine, or I am not a woman. We should still be respected as women no matter what role we hold in the realm of fire.
I will rock platinum blonde hair and pink glitter nail polish.
*cue "Woman" by Diana Gordon, a cat walk floating on Victoria Secret angel wings, and sassy dance moves*
Below: the badass ladies I worked with July to November, Elizabeth and Tina.
And pink glitter nail polish in action.
21. This Is the Best Job Ever
What our job description should be:
be outside all day
and enjoy huckleberry milkshakes in Montana
Click the links below to read more about what I’ve learned working as a wildland firefighter:
Handling grumpy co-workers, learning to communicate better, trying to balance our crazy schedule, and a lot more.
And Another Season Begins
Facing my fear of using a chainsaw, the handy dandy Avenza app, and pictures from the beginning of the 2018 season.
Summer Through a Wildland Firefighter’s Eyes
The story of my first season on a fuels crew through pictures. (published on Medium.com)