Never Give Up
We've all been through it. High school graduation. That first job search. Hating the smell of stale grease from the fast food joint. The creepy, lecherous boss. Disappointed that I couldn't find a decent job in my small town of Prescott, Arizona, I gave up and went to big city Tucson.
So how did I, a woman, end up applying for a job on a fire crew with the U.S. Forest Service? Well, it wasn't a childhood dream, nor a secret fascination with fire. I simply loved the outdoors, and met the right people at the right time. The kicker was that this was in the mid-1970s when the Forest Service had finally allowed women to work on fire crews. Yes, you read that right, allowed.
It all started with a phone call.
"I know someone who works for the Coronado National Forest, and he's looking for office help," an acquaintance said. "I'll call him."
And what do you know? I got the job! Okay, so it was office work, but it would be at Palisades Ranger Station, high in the mountains north of Tucson, right-smack-dab in the middle of a ponderosa forest—just like Prescott. If I had to take an office job, this would be the place to do so. I could look out the windows and see pine trees. I could enjoy a walk in those pines at lunch break.
My job was filling out timesheets for the Catalina Hot Shots, an elite firefighting crew. These guys introduced me to the exciting world of fire. They also flirted with me, took me out on dates, and made my boring desk job almost bearable. Almost. But in fact, I hated paperwork. We didn't have computers to make duplicates back then, so I had to fill out those timesheets by hand, getting blisters from pressing down hard enough to imprint all four carbon copies. I began to think that I'd rather have an outdoor job.
At the end of the second summer, I performed a ritual. I tore a timesheet into tiny pieces, piled them in my driveway, and struck a match. As they turned to ashes I swore: Never again! Working indoors was not for me. Was I giving up on the Forest Service? Heck no. I applied for a firefighting position the next summer.
In the spring of 1976, the Coronado National Forest's Nogales Ranger District called. Did I want a fire crew position in the Santa Rita Mountains? Did I? You bet I did! Thrilled, I floated around the house all day with a big smile on my face. Guess I'm going to be a firefighter!
I've never forgotten my first day of work. After saying hello and shaking my hand, my supervisor checked my palm for calluses and squeezed my upper arm for muscle tone. I thought he was teasing me. Maybe he was, but it didn't take me long to discover that, as the sole woman on the crew, I'd have more to take on than the hard work.
The first two weeks were all about training: fire behavior, firefighting tactics, safety, and first aid…well, mostly about training. My presence sure stirred-up much interest from the men on the crew. Some of the guys flirted with me, some eyed me with considerable doubt, probably thinking: "Who is this girl, and what is she doing here?" When we were digging the ditch for a new water line, one guy told me that he preferred women who were "barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen." I rolled my eyes, and thought, Oh, give me a break, as I stabbed my shovel into the rocky soil.
We'd just wrapped-up training with a mock fire. At 5 a.m. the next day, I was awakened by my supervisor: "Linda, we have a fire."
I bolted upright. "Be right there!"
I've never dressed that fast in my life. I trotted over to the office and impatiently waited for more of our crew. When we were finally on our way, the smoke billowing in the mountains made my stomach tighten: This is the real thing.
An hour later we scrambled up a steep slope to reach the fire burning in ponderosa pines. We cleared a fireline, hacking and scraping away pine needles and duff down to bare soil. Our heavy packs kept getting in the way, so we ditched them.
A short time later, my crewmate stopped working and stared behind us. "Uh-oh. There go our packs."
His comment confused me for a moment…until I saw a burst of orange flames consuming our gear. And our canteens of drinking water. Oh. No. Our water!
What a long day of intense thirst. After that, I carried plenty of water, and never let it out of my reach. In fact, I never go anywhere without water now.
Always busy, we didn't just sit around and wait for fires. Trail maintenance was one of my favorite projects. Okay, it was hard work, but the way I saw it, I got paid to go hiking. When we flew in a helicopter to helispots, remote landing pads, to remove over-growth, I had fun—that is, once I overcame my fear of heights. A few guys gave me a hard time all summer, but I ignored their stupid sexist comments. I loved working here, and since everyone else seemed to accept me, I believed I fit in.
How quickly things can change. A simple assignment from a workshop in assertiveness training: interview my crew to get their opinion of women on fire crews. They voiced their opinion, all right. They told me girls didn't belong on fire crews. They told me girls were weak, and therefore a danger to everyone else. One told me I was just filling the agency's ‘women quota' and I should quit and go home. Boy, did that hurt. But quit? No way. No man was ever going to make me quit. I returned to the same place for more the next summer.
In late May, a fire at the base of the tallest peak in the Santa Rita Mountains had us flying into action. The helicopter pilot circled the fire.
Why aren't we landing? I thought.
"It's too dangerous to land with all of this smoke," the pilot said.
Wow, I guess we're going back.
"You're going to have to jump out," he added.
Jump out? Not particularly thrilled about jumping out of a perfectly good helicopter, I did so anyway. It took three sixteen-hour workdays of digging line and putting out hotspots to get that fire under control.
That was just the beginning of a busy fire season. On a 50,000 acre fire in Northern California, we'd been assigned to guard the fireline to make sure no embers lit a fire behind our backs. My crewmate and I were told by our leader to sit tight until he returned for us. But he never came back. He'd forgotten us! The worst part? If we hadn't moved, we would have found ourselves trapped in a backfire, and probably would have died.
Did that screw-up make me want to quit? No. Nor did I want to quit when a man said he wouldn't hire me because I was female. It did cross my mind for a split-second when I found out that I'd been blacklisted, though. Me, innocent hard-working me—blacklisted! But that ignited a fire in my soul. More determined than ever, I vowed: The harder men make it for me, the more I plan on staying in this field. And I did, for a total of seven years.
Sadly, I was forced to give up the work that filled me with a sense of purpose, but all was not lost. After a life-changing injury, I learned to hone my skills of perseverance and tenacity and found a new career. I learned that no other line of work has ever forged bonds like the ones I'd made with my crewmates. I learned to love and respect nature in both her glory and her fury. I learned that because I loved my job, I never thought of it as work. And most importantly of all, I learned that if you truly want something, to never, ever, give up.
Originally from Syracuse, New York, Ms. Strader moved to Prescott, Arizona with her family in 1972. In 1976, she became one of the first women on a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.
Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love and Courage is her first book, released on May 1st, 2018 by Bedazzled Ink Publishing. In September, she became a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. She is currently working on a prequel.
In addition to writing, Ms. Strader is a landscape architect, certified arborist, and watercolor artist. She resides in the same area where her Forest Service career began. You can learn more about Ms. Strader via her blog.
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