New women firefighters proving themselves

Newwomen firefighters proving themselves

9July 2005


    ST. GEORGE — Jodi Fowler had achoice to make in 1998: move to Arizona and try for a spot on the Phoenix Sunscheerleading squad, or take a job fighting wildland fires for the Bureau of LandManagement.

She chose the fires — ditching thepompons and crowds for a fire-retardant uniform, a hard hat and a halfhatchet-half pick tool known as a Pulaski. 


“It’s an adrenaline rush,”said the 28-year-old Richfield, Utah, native. “It’s a lot like performing,but you’re doing something. You’re helping people out.”


Fowler is part of the secondgeneration of women making wildland firefighting a career. She works for theDixie National Forest on a St. George-based helicopter crew, called “helitack.”


Described by some as once being a”testosterone-driven boys club,” women have and are making their markin the industry from the fire lines to management.


“It’s a great thing to do,”says Becky May, a retired division chief on California’s Shasta-Trinity NationalForest, who was among the first women to choose the career some 30 years ago.


“The work is very rewarding andyou learn so much about yourself, your strengths and your limits.”


In 1976, May was a 20-year-old Oregoncollege student when she landed a summer job on a brush disposal crew on theWillamette National Forest. She was studying forestry but said the class workleft her empty. Her first fire — a prescribed burn of a clearcut forest –didn’t. The fire’s smells, movement and smoke hooked her.


“That was all it took. It justwas one of those things where your gut tells you this is what you need todo,” said May in a telephone interview from her home near northernCalifornia’s Lake Shasta.


May, 50, said a handful ofexperiences made it clear to her that some minds would have to be changed. Onone fire, she tried repeatedly contacting a male counterpart over a radio, onlyto be told later he had purposely ignored her because she was a woman.


“I really don’t think thatattitude prevails anymore,” May said.


A 1980s California lawsuit compelledfirefighting agencies to hire more women. But May thinks more attitudes werechanged because women have worked hard and proved themselves. And provingoneself in the fire service is required, regardless of gender, she said.


“Mentally, it still comes downto them and the ground that they are working on, whether you are a man or awoman,” she said.


Fowler knows the path is easier forwomen of her generation because of May and others but says proving herself is adaily reality. Among her responsibilities as the lead crew on her helitack team,Fowler makes decisions and dishes out orders to a mostly male crew.


“I think I get lots of respect,”Fowler said. “But if you back down, then they’ll eat you alive. And if youmake a decision, you’ve got to justify it to the end.”


As tough as the job can be, Fowlersaid she found it tougher to stay away. She quit once and took a job as acocktail waitress in nearby Mesquite, Nev., but never stopped missing the job.She jumped at the chance to join the helitack and then spent two years trainingat a California fire school.


During a fire last month nearHurricane, Fowler’s helitack team rescued a woman on horseback who was caught ina 200-acre fire. Recounting the story, Fowler’s eyes spark with excitement andher face glows with pride. “I do think it’s my calling,” she said.


Trying to pin down just how manywomen are in the fire service is hard because there are a multitude of federal,state and local agencies. Most say a best-guess estimate is that about 10percent of the personnel on any fire are female.


Firefighting means long hours at lowpay; Boise-based firefighter Christy Swartz says that in a good year — when sheworks a full 12 months, including 600 hours of summer overtime — she’ll makeabout $40,000. And during the season, Swartz sees little of her firefighterhusband, Ryan.


That’s a concern for the couple, whoare talking about having a family and wonder how they can be parents and stilldo what they love.


“You can only balance so muchbefore things swing too far one way,” Swartz said.


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