USA — When Bequi Livingston decided to become a wildland firefighter in the early 1980s, she was among only a handful of women in the field.
Now she’s a fire operations health and safety specialist with the Southwest Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service, training firefighters in Arizona and New Mexico.
She loves the work and fighting forest fires. “It is awesome, but you either love it or you hate it,” said Livingston, who started her firefighting career in Ruidoso and became the first woman on the Smokey Bear Hotshot crew in 1988.
Livingston and the Forest Service are trying to attract more women to the profession. The agency will host a firefighter training program just for women over two weekends in September and are looking for more applicants.
“We’re really looking for individuals who want to make this a career in wildland firefighting,” Livingston said. “We want to make sure we set these individuals up for success rather than failure.”
Firefighters have to be in excellent physical shape. They have to be ready to leave home and family with only two hours’ notice and may be gone for 14 to 21 days at a stretch. “Very often you have no idea where you will be sent. It may be in a very isolated area with harsh conditions and no cell service or way to contact your family,” Livingston said. “A lot of times, you are sleeping on the ground with a rock as a pillow.”
Base pay for this hard living is about $15.64 an hour.
But for women who love the outdoors, aren’t afraid to face tough situations and like the camaraderie of a hardworking team, there are few substitutes for firefighting. “Wildland firefighting is the closest you will ever have to the camaraderie of being in actual combat,” said Livingston, whose husband and a son also are firefighters.
“When you are out there, you are on a team. You really rely on each other,” said Livingston, who was the first woman on the Sandia helicopter attack crew for wildfires in 1986. She went on to establish a conditioning program called Fireline Fitness and teaches wildland fire classes at Central New Mexico Community College.
The Forest Service is selecting women between the ages of 17 and 37 to participate in the Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camp in either Arizona or New Mexico. The weekend classes are scheduled Sept. 5-7 and Sept. 12-14. A total of 20 applicants will be accepted for each training. The deadline for applications is Aug. 29.
The New Mexico workshops will be held at the U.S. Forest Service Southwestern Regional Office in Albuquerque.
The first weekend will offer a comprehensive introduction to wildland firefighting, including required training to meet the Firefighter Type 2 qualifications. The second weekend, participants will complete the required training and fieldwork and provide enhancement sessions to help women find job opportunities in wildland firefighting. Attendance at both weekends is required.
The first women wildland firefighters in the United States, according to a federal history of firefighting, were a Mrs. Durham, wife of a ranger, and her friend Ms. Koloppenburg, who began battling blazes in 1915 in what was then known as the California National Forest, now the Mendocino National Forest.