Leavenworth, Washington, USA — Former pageant queen Irma Farias lugged adripping diesel torch up the forest ridge, ready to burn it all. Her ensemble:an oversized, school-bus-yellow shirt, dark-green work pants and thick boots. Nomakeup.
At 19, Farias is a self-described “girly girl” reformed.
Her crew burned a test acre near Derby Canyon on Wednesday, about 12 milesfrom Leavenworth, and called it quits. The 100-acre prescribed burn was canceleddue to forecast high winds.
“You see how the burn area shifted,” Farias said, pointing to apile of burning debris. The flames crept away from the center, charring thehillside three feet away.
Farias joined the U.S. Forest Service last April through a Forest Serviceprogram for college students called Student Temporary Employment Program.
Through STEP, Farias toured each department: botany, timber, wildlife, trailsand fire crew, which she chose.
Her parents thought she was joking, Farias said.
“They thought I would be doing office work or answering phones,”she said. “In a Hispanic family, you’re taught to work hard and be like adoctor or nurse or something indoors.”
Her father is a mechanic and her mother cleans Chelan hotel rooms. Farias isthe middle of five children.
Two years ago, she coasted with a C in Susi Bennett’s biology class at MansonHigh School. She gabbed with friends and daydreamed about her next shoppingexcursion, she said.
“She told me a lot of students didn’t like it (biology) because all itwas was sitting down and textbooks. I was one of those students,” Fariassaid.
Bennett recommended her to the 4-H Forestry Education summer program for highschool credits and a small stipend from Washington State University Extension.The seven-week program transformed her, Farias said.
The former Manson Apple Blossom Festival queen learned to catch salmon withher bare hands, dig trails and work without showering for days. Eventually sheditched the makeup and fingernail polish.
Farias tried to skip the three-day wilderness trip during the 4-H forestryprogram, said program director Kevin Powers.
“She couldn’t bring her mirror, and there were no electrical outlets forher hair dryer; that came as a bit of a rude shock to her,” Powers said.”Once she got out there and pushed her boundaries, we all sort of watchedher blossom. To me, I look at her as one of those success stories.”
Powers took Farias and other students to Washington, D.C., last fall to speakwith senators and high-ranking officials about outdoor education. She was poisedand articulate, Powers said.
But in a group of her peers, she’s shy. She wouldn’t talk among her 20crewmen and ate lunch alone for the first few weeks, said fire crew memberThomas Goble, also in the STEP program.
“Eventually she came out of her shell,” Goble said. “This islike a second family. We look out for each other.”
“At first I shrunk down because I felt they were better than Iwas,” Farias said. “But going out there and doing it changed mymind.”
Farias carried her 45-pound pack next to her crewmates at the Domke Fire thissummer and later scraped fire lines at a brush fire near Chelan.
“You get really focused on knowing who you are instead of just thinkingof yourself as a girl,” Farias said. “You’re doing the same work aseveryone else every day. You have to earn your respect, and that’s the same foreveryone.”
The last day of her fire season is Friday.
In January, she will attend Wenatchee Valley College and plans to transfer toWashington State University for a natural resources degree.