USA — Years of sleeping in the dirt and spending weeks away from her family haven’t extinguished Jeanne Pincha-Tulley’s love of corralling blazes.
The 49-year-old mother of two boys has followed fire all of her adult life, a passion that has led her to become the first and only woman incident commander of a national fire team.
“Does it take a lot of brains to do that? No. It takes a flak jacket and lot of Motrin,” Pincha-Tulley joked from her office as forest fire chief at the Tahoe National Forest headquarters on Nevada City’s Coyote Street.
National fire teams can be sent anywhere in the country and have been sent on loan to places including Canada and Australia. It’s dangerous and dirty work, but fighting fires offers rewards few other jobs can deliver: Saving forests, wildlife and entire towns from destruction.
“You don’t camp out in the dirt for nothing. You want to do something for the common good,” Pincha-Tulley said.
Last summer, Pincha-Tulley led her team in Ketchum, Idaho, during the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire, which singed the outskirts of the resort community of Sun Valley. Local celebrities Bruce Willis and Steve Miller threw a concert in honor of the firefighters after the team saved their homes.
One of the driest years on record, the team went on five deployments in all and helped snuff out fires in Southern California and Plumas County.
Over her 30-year career, the fires have grown bigger and harder to put out, while populations in the areas of rural-urban interface have exploded.
“Look at all the new houses that have been built in this area. It’s like that all over the West,” Pincha-Tulley said.
The long winter months indoors are grueling for the woman who prefers the adrenaline rushes of fighting a fire.
“It’s really sick, I know, but it’s true: I thrive in crisis,” she said.
In addition to fire fighting skills, her team is equipped with paramedic and emergency responder qualifications suited to other natural disasters.
Pincha-Tulley’s team arrived in Mississippi four hours after Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastline.
“We had a grand time. There was devastation everywhere. We were literally saving people from trees,” Pincha-Tulley said.
The daughter of two aeronautical engineers, Pincha-Tulley’s naturalist side was nurtured as a child when her family would go on rock-hounding trips; the little girl would gather up armfuls of leaves.
She grew up in Alabama, and her accent has a way of showing itself when she gets worked up.
Her work for the forest service began the summer she was 19 and a student at the University of Washington.
She was one of only two women in a field of a thousand brothers.
“I started as a very basic firefighter and worked my way up pretty rapidly,” Pincha-Tulley said.
She estimates each year she spends 80 to 90 days on various fires around the country, and having children didn’t slow her down.
She was a battalion chief when her first was born.
Her boys, now 18 and 21, have never known a mother any different.
While Pincha-Tulley remains modest about her national rank – the equivalent of a one-star general – she doesn’t deny how tough it is.
Being a woman has given her an edge, she said, and over the years, her feminine yet commanding style has worked to her advantage.