Women in Fire

They answer the call. Whenever and wherever they are needed to fight a fire a crew is assembled at Magdalena Ranger District’s fire station, and armed with shovels, chainsaws, axes, Pulaskis and other tools. They are no different than any other wildland firefighting crew. Except for one detail … they are all women.

Last Friday, an all-female crew out of Magdalena was just returning to the Magdalena Ranger District’s fire station on Highway 107 from almost two weeks fighting a forest fire on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Although fighting what was designated the Ikes Fire was grueling, entailing long days and nights camping under the stars, all 18 crew members came home upbeat.

It was the first firefighting assignment for Angelina Guerro of the Alamo-Navajo reservation. Her experience reinforced her decision to become a wildland firefighter.

“We were on the fire for 12 days,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I’m learning things out there on the fire crew.”

Women unpacking

Her story, and the story of each woman on the crew, began with a ground-breaking program initiated by Cibola National Forest. Going on three years now, Cibola has been leading the way to integrate women into the ranks of its firefighting crews with its Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camp. The Boot Camp was formed to train career-focused women to become temporary, seasonal employees, and on-call wildland firefighters. These positions support wildland fire operations over the summer months and can help pave the way for future, permanent employment and career advancement with the Forest Service.

Crew Boss Kevin Hashemi, who is a nine year veteran of wildland fire fighting, said this is the first Women in Fire crew in the Forest Service’s Region 3, which encompasses all of New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas and Western Oklahoma.

“We have already heard of other Forests in the Region that are planning to do this,” Hashemi said. “So, this is the first all-female fire crew in Region 3”.

Who is the typical applicant for the Women in Fire Boot Camp? Simply, those interested in the outdoors and want to learn practical skills, Hashemi says.

“This crew does not identify anybody as qualified, or unqualified. This crew is designed to help people get their foot in the door and see if this is something they’re interested in doing,” Hashemi said. “If it works out, or if they decide fire is not for them, then they learn something about themselves, learn some leadership, and learn some life skills, great. That’s an accomplishment. That’s exactly what we’re looking to do on this crew."

Unpacking Truck

The women unpacking in Magdalena last Friday seemed came from all over; from Minnesota, Ohio, California, Oregon and New Mexico. Kelli Wilke hails from Mountainair and has already served on two previous wildland fire crews.

“I wanted a job in the field, either as an EMT or firefighter, and this seems to fit me really well,” she said. “I like to be outside. I like hard work.”

The same goes for her fellow crew members. “They are the hardest workers I’ve ever known. They call it your fire family,” Wilke said. “I’ve never seen a group of people who don’t know each other just come together and work this well together. The morale is very high.”

She said the program was a great way to help women get their foot in the door, “because it’s not that easy for women to get into fire.”

“It's a good way a woman can get involved, because it can be challenging to break into the traditionally male field,” she said. “You learn how to use a tool, how to sharpen a tool, how to prep line. A lot of girls are learning how to run chainsaws.”

Women Helmets

Her crew had three or four sawyers (chainsaw operators), plus swampers (who carry the cut material from one location to another), and diggers (who use hand tools to actually create a fire break). Wilke said it doesn’t matter how strong one is. “Your attitude is 70 percent of the job, at least,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”

Another crew member, Jessica Hilfers, who normally works out of Mimbres in the Wilderness Ranger District in the Gila National Forest, said crew members always take care of each other.

“If you needed aspirin, you know, four hands were out offering,” she said. “You see folks that have been around longer teaching younger folks.”

Hilfers has had previous experience on fire crews and said she was only one of two women on crews in Northern New Mexico. “Women are more than capable of doing this job,” she said. “It’s an endurance thing and women are good at that.”

Hashemi said this particular crew – Crew 3 – included eight or nine brand new crew members along with the more experienced women, who act as mentors.

Smiling Unpacking

“The mentor types come from other forests, other regions, other districts,” Hashemi said. “We pull in anybody who’s interested in mentoring new folks and helping them get a foot in the door. Teaching them what fire is … what fire can do.”

He said Crew 3 came on in June for critical training. “That was for about two weeks and then the crew staffs on the district for an additional two weeks,” Hashemi said. “Then, essentially, it’s just on call when needed. For example, if an agency is looking for a 20 person hand crew, this crew can get ordered up and get sent to wherever the fire is. They can respond to anywhere in the country.”

He said crew members will drive in or fly in, “and Magdalena is kind of our rendezvous point. We have all our gear and all our trucks here. Everyone gets outfitted and then we take off with the crew from this location and travel to the fire site.”

That means they can go as far east as Maine or north to Alaska.

According to the National Forest Service, the first all-woman forest firefighting crew was assembled in 1942 in California. The crew consisted of a foreman, a truck driver, an assistant driver, firefighters, and a cook. The first women in the postwar period known to have been paid for fire suppression work were wildland firefighting crews working for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Although the training focuses on women in wildland fire, all interested parties are encouraged and invited to attend. No previous experience is required. For more information on the Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camp, contact the Magdalena Ranger District during regular business hours at 575854-2281.  You may also visit Twitter:@Cibola_NF, and www.facebook.com/ cibolanf