The experiences of a female wildland firefighter in the 1970s

In April we published an excerpt from a book by Linda M. Strader, Summers of Fire: A Memoir, which is about her experience as a wildland firefighter. Today we have an article written by her about what it was like to be one of the few female wildland firefighters during her seven seasons that began in 1976.

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At the naïve age of twenty, I accepted my first firefighting position on the Nogales District of the Coronado National Forest in 1976. Although I knew what the position entailed, I didn’t know for sure what it would be like. However, I wanted this job, and figured the biggest challenge would be the hard physical work.

When I arrived at Florida Ranger Station (pronounced Flor-ee-da) as the only woman on a ten-person suppression crew, my supervisor scrutinized my petite frame and long blond hair. After shaking my hand, he checked my palm for calluses. Then he reached to squeeze my upper arm. While he did this, I smiled, thinking, he doesn’t think I’m strong enough! Immediately I knew I had to prove him wrong.

Linda Strader and Smokey

Smokey and Linda Strader, at the end of her first fire season in 1976.

Soon it became quite apparent I would have to prove to all the men on my crew that I could handle the work, but only by working twice as hard to be accepted. However, it turned out even that wasn’t enough. By mid-summer, many of men on the crew made it perfectly clear they didn’t want me there. They harassed me, made sarcastic and snide remarks, told me I was a burden. At first devastated by the painful comments, I considered giving up. Instead, I persevered. I truly wanted this job.

Over the next two summers, I continued to work hard, standing up to the criticism from, and forming relationships with, the men on my crew. We shared the adventures of a lifetime; from a 50,000 acre wildfire in Northern California, to protecting the city of Flagstaff from burning to the ground. We had fun, too. We built trails and fence, laughed a lot, had water fights, shared secrets, fell in love. The supervisor who doubted me became my best ally.

After three fire seasons, I felt confident I’d proven myself. Then I found out that changing attitudes is not that easy, when I was denied a position on the Catalina Hotshots because I was female. Furious, I filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, only to have it dismissed owing to lack of proof. This injustice only fueled my determination.
Mid-way into my fourth summer with the Forest Service, my supervisor delivered devastating news—the district labeled me a troublemaker for filing that EEO complaint, and I found myself blacklisted. Instead of giving up, I switched to the Bureau of Land Management for the next two summers. First I accept a position in Alaska, where I battled mosquitoes more than fires, and faced life-endangering events – not from fire – but from antics perpetuated by my lunatic boss. Next I took a job in Colorado, gaining confidence as I collected tree harvesting data in the Durango area.

Missing the excitement of firefighting, I returned to the Forest Service in 1982, finally becoming a Hotshot on the crew that denied me the position four years earlier. Unfortunately, an injury ended my career.

What is still amazing to me, is that over thirty years later, not a whole lot has changed. Women still struggle to be accepted in traditional men’s jobs, including the military. While dangerous work isn’t for everyone, I think it’s a personal choice. Everyone should have the chance to pursue whatever it is they love to do.

Follow the progress of my book: Summers of Fire: A memoir at http://summersoffirebook.blogspot.com

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Book excerpt: Summers of Fire

We are privileged today to publish an excerpt from a book being written by Linda M. Strader about her experience as a wildland firefighter, which began on a 10-person suppression crew on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.

The nineteen-year-old woman, strong willed and adventurous, stepped into history when she applied for a position as a Forest Service firefighter in 1976, one year after the organization opened its doors to allow women on fire crews.

Ms. Strader is now a Landscape Architect in southern Arizona. Although she enjoys her current profession, she still remembers her days as a firefighter as the best times of her life.

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SUMMERS OF FIRE; A MEMOIR

By Linda Strader

(A PORTION OF CHAPTER 3)

Anticipation grew daily among the crew. It proved hard for me to be patient. I felt ready! The practice fire had me raring to go to a real one, but no matter how much training they drilled into us, I figured nothing would totally prepare me for the real thing.

Linda Strader and Smokey

Smokey and Linda Strader, at the end of her first fire season in 1976.

The morning of June 2nd, at five-thirty a.m., I lay in bed, awake, listening to the calls of mourning doves. “Coo-ah … coo-coo-coo” echoed in the dawn. Such a sad sound. No wonder they call them mourning doves. They sound like they’re crying. I listened intently, trying to determine how many doves I heard, and where their calls were coming from. Gradually, I recognized a new sound; the sound of gravel crunching under feet in the driveway, coming closer to my open bedroom window. The footsteps stopped.

Glenn’s deep voice came through the screen, “Linda? We have a fire.”

Oh my God, this is it!!

Suddenly wide awake, I bounded out of bed and replied in a shaky voice, “Okay, be right there!”
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Book published about Esperanza Fire

The Esperanza Fire, book cover
The book that John N. Maclean has been working on for years about the Esperanza Fire has been published. Titled The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, it covers the 2006 wildfire that Raymond Oyler lit which raced up a canyon in southern California and overran the five-person crew of U.S. Forest Service engine 57. All five crewmembers, who were protecting an unoccupied house, were killed. Oyler was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson, and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires. He was sentenced to death.

The firefighters who died were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

This extraordinary event, and the trial that followed, had a significant impact on many of us in the fire service.

Mr. Maclean’s other books about wildland fire, include Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon FireThe Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, and Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire (out of print but may be available at your local book store or at Mr. Maclean’s web site).

The new book, The Esperanza Fire, can be purchased now directly from Mr. Maclean’s web site, and each book will be personally autographed by him. It is also available at Amazon, but without the autograph. It may not be at your local book store until February 12.

If Mr. Maclean’s other books and the excerpt below are any indication, this new one will be difficult to put down.

With the permission of Mr. Maclean and the publisher, Counterpoint Press, we have an excerpt from the book below.

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Introduction to the excerpt, written by John N. Maclean:

Just after midnight on October 26, 2006, an arsonist set a bundle of matches and a Marlboro cigarette, held together by a rubber band, into a patch of grass along a remote roadway in the Banning Pass, which connects Los Angeles with the desert communities to the east. The arsonist drove away, the cigarette burned down and ignited the matches, and the grass caught fire. That was the start of the Esperanza Fire, which eventually burned over 40,000 acres and destroyed over 30 homes and other structures. It also claimed the lives of the five-man crew of Forest Service Engine 57. The arson investigation led to the capital murder trial of Raymond Oyler, who was found guilty of arson and murder and sentenced to death.
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Start a wildfire, pay for it

People who start wildfires should be held accountable.

There is a growing intolerance by both legal courts and citizens for wildfire arson, whether the start is deliberate or negligent or just plain accidental. The Washington Post recently reported on a legal case in Arizona, in which a couple of young men got off easy for their role in starting off a gi-normous fire, the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire. The Prescott Daily Courier editorial called it “Two days in jail. Five years probation. A lifetime of regret.”

Right on.

In an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, wildland fire author John Maclean makes a strong point that legal and public opinions have shifted over the years about just how responsible a person is when a wildland fire is started — intentionally or accidentally. As he notes in his op-ed piece, back in 1953 a grand jury in Willows, California, refused to even indict an admitted arsonist on charges after he torched off what became the Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest. That fatal fire burned not far from the current North Pass Fire, and the Rattlesnake Fire killed 15 firefighters, most of them “missionary firefighters” who lived not far south of there.

As Maclean detailed in his now out-of-print book Fire and Ashes, Stan Pattan, the son of a respected Forest Service engineer, “had not intended to kill anyone,” or so the locals said. In those days, though, setting fires in the wildlands to clear brush, improve hunting opportunities, or maybe even get a little extra work on a going fire was a common practice — nothing to be ashamed of, much less illegal.

Stan Pattan did it, but he did do a little prison time. He certainly wasn’t charged with murder, like Raymond Oyler was for his part in the wildfire arson that started the 2006 Esperanza Fire that wiped out a 5-person USFS engine crew. That whole sordid tale is the subject of Maclean’s next book, which will be released this winter by Counterpoint Press.

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Re-visiting Mann Gulch

The Mann Gulch Fire, 63 years ago this week, took the lives of 13 smokejumpers. Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire recounted the story of the most deadly event in smokejumper history at that time. Of the four survivors on the fire, only three managed to reach the ridgeline above them and escape the deadly fire.

USFS team recovering bodies from Mann Gulch in 1949. Photo by Dick Wilson, part of the recovery team, courtesy John Maclean.

USFS team recovering bodies from Mann Gulch in 1949. Photo by Dick Wilson, part of the recovery team, courtesy John Maclean.

Norman Maclean re-visited the gulch, in rugged northern Montana, when he was in his 80s. He was accompanied by the two living survivors, Walt Rumsey and Robert Sallee, and they tried to re-create the smokejumpers’ run for safety; Rumsey and Sallee tried to find the “crevice” at the ridgetop where they’d escaped. Maclean concluded, though, that the spot they identified for him on the ridge was considerably east of where they actually were in 1949.

Aerial view of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, USFS photo courtesy John Maclean.

Aerial view of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, USFS photo courtesy John Maclean.

H. Wayne Phillips of Great Falls, a former smokejumper, along with two other former smokejumpers and a former paratrooper, recently hiked Mann Gulch looking for answers to Maclean’s questions. The Great Falls Tribune today ran a feature on the hikers’ quest to find the spot where Sallee and Rumsey crested the ridge.

Thanks to John Maclean for use of the 1949 photos.

 

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“Fire Crew” — a new book about wildland firefighting

Ben Walters, a self-described “reformed party animal, former firefighter, and former school teacher” has published a book about fighting wildfires with the Bureau of Land Management titled Fire Crew: Stories from the Fireline.

There are a lot of books about wildfire, but this one is unusual because Mr. Walters knows how to use words — words that convey to the reader what he was seeing through his eyes and put you there with him. His descriptions of events, what was going on and why, and what he was thinking are gripping, and are told in a self-deprecating and sometimes humorous manner without ego.

Early in Mr. Walters’ firefighting career he was a little wild and crazy. For example, when drinking his way through a boring evening at a fire station he climbed aboard a backhoe and attempted to dig a swimming pool for the engine crew. Without spoiling your future reading experience, lets just say it did not end well.

But it is not all about bad personal choices. Firefighters will see themselves or their coworkers in many of the well-told stories which were were collected from Mr. Walters’ 11-year wildland firefighting career with the Bureau of Land Management from 1993 through 2003. He started as a GS-2 rookie and worked his way up to an engine module leader, crew boss, and Type 3 Incident Commander. Then he taught junior high school for three years and later worked with a team that dismantled nuclear reactors and other radiological facilities. Along the way he collected a couple of college degrees and now is working with a team that does studies on nuclear fuel fabrication processes. He told us he “really loved fighting fire and there’s a lot of times I wish I’d never quit doing it. But you know how life goes.”

The book will be an excellent addition to your lap this month when the weather outside is frightful and you have some extra time around the holidays. It is edited by Kelly Andersson, a former editor at Wildland Firefighter magazine and author of the The Montana Ranch COOKHOUSE COOKBOOK. The cover photos were taken by Kari Greer, whose photos we have featured previously on Wildfire Today.

You can get it electronically from Smashwords where copies are available that you can read on a computer or various e-book readers. You can also get electronic or paper versions of the book at Amazon. The cost is $9.99 for electronic copies, and $17.95 for paper. If you don’t already have a Kindle e-book reader, you can get one at the Amazon/Wildfire Today store.

Below is an excerpt from the book, published here with Mr. Walters’ permission. It tells the story of Engine 311 getting stuck, or high centered, as a fire burns up to the truck and the crew.
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