USA — Jodi Fowler had a choice to make in 1998. Move to Arizona to try to land a spot on the Phoenix Suns cheerleading squad, or take a job fighting wildland fires for the Bureau of Land Management.
She chose the fires — ditching the pompons and crowds for a fire-retardant uniform, a hard hat and a half hatchet-half pick took 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 second generation of women making wildland firefighting a career. She works for the Dixie 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 mark in 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 National Forest, who was among the first women to choose the career some 30 years ago.
“The work is very rewarding and you learn so much about yourself, your strengths and your limits.”
In 1976, May was a 20-year-old Oregon college student when she landed a summer job on a brush disposal crew on the Willamette National Forest. She was studying forestry but said the class work left her empty. Her first fire — a prescribed burn of a clear cut forest — didn’t.
The fire’s smells, movement and smoke hooked her.
“That was all it took. It just was one of those things where your gut tells you this is what you need to do,” said May in telephone interview from her home near northern California’s Lake Shasta.
May, 50, never felt any blatant resistance from men to her desire to fight fires and later to move into management, but had a handful of experiences where it seemed clear that some minds would have to be changed.
On one fire, she tried repeatedly contacting a male counterpart over a radio, only to be told later that the man had purposely ignored her because she was a woman.
“I really don’t think that attitude prevails any more,” May said.
Some mindsets might have been moved by an 1980s California lawsuit that compelled firefighting agencies to hire more women. May thinks more were changed because women have worked hard and proved themselves.
And proving oneself in the fire service is required, regardless of gender, she said.
“Mentally, it still comes down to them and the ground that they are working on, whether you are a man or a woman,” she said. “You have to pit yourself against the fire, against the beast.”
Fowler knows the path is easier for women of her generation because of May and others, but says proving herself is a daily 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 you make a decision, you’ve got to justify it to the end.”
As tough as the job can be, Fowler said she found it tougher to stay away. She quit once and took a job as a cocktail 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 training at a California fire school.
During a fire last month near Hurricane, Fowler’s helitack team rescued a woman on horseback who was caught in a 200 acre fire. Recounting the story, Fowler’s eyes spark with excitement and her face glows with pride. “I do think it’s my calling.”
Trying to pin down just how many women 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 10 percent of the personnel on any fire is female.
Fire season begins in late spring and can continue through early October. When a fire starts, hundreds of men and women in the fire service pack and leave, usually with only a few hours notice to do their jobs.
Recognizable to the public by their dark green pants, electric yellow shirts and heavy leather boots, wildland firefighters work long hours for low pay, and have little time with family during the season.
Boise-based firefighter Christy Swartz says that in a good year — when she works a full 12 months, including 600 hours of summer overtime — she’ll make about $40,000.
Swartz sees little of her firefighter husband, Ryan, during the season.
“I think in the past fire years, we’ve worked together just two or three days,” said the 30-year-old fuels specialist who works for the U.S. Forest Service on the Boise National Forest and was managing a pair of ground crews working the recent St. George-area Westside Complex fire.
Married two years, the couple is now talking about having a family and wonder how they can be parents and still do what they love.
“You can only balance so much before things swing too far one way,” Swartz said.