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Celebrating Women in Wildland Firefighting

In 1987, the US Congress declared March as National Women's History Month to celebrate the remarkable achievements and contributions of women throughout history. This month-long celebration aims to recognize the fearless and admirable women who have paved the way for others in traditionally male-dominated industries such as wildland firefighting. The history of women in wildland firefighting dates back to the early 20th century, when they defied convention and societal norms to pursue their passion for firefighting. They proved themselves as reliable, skilled, and courageous firefighters, earning the respect and admiration of their peers and supervisors. They continue to shatter glass ceilings and challenge stereotypes, proving that gender does not define capability or dedication.

Let's explore the rich history of women in wildland firefighting, understanding their journey from marginalized outsiders to respected leaders. We will celebrate their invaluable contributions to the industry and highlight the challenges they faced and continue to face. Ultimately, we aim to inspire and empower women who aspire to pursue careers in wildland firefighting and encourage the industry to become more inclusive and diverse.

Women Pioneers in Fire

Women's history in wildland firefighting is a testament to their tenacity and determination. While their roles were initially limited to support positions such as cooks and nurses, women gradually began to break into frontline firefighting roles during World War II, when male firefighters were called to serve in the military. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that women were officially allowed to serve as wildland firefighters in the US Forest Service. Even then, female firefighters faced significant challenges, including discrimination, harassment, and lack of support and resources. Despite these challenges, women continued to push the boundaries and make substantial contributions to the industry. Throughout the decades, women in wildland firefighting have continued to shatter stereotypes and push boundaries, taking on increasingly prominent roles within the industry. From serving as crew bosses and engine captains to leading elite hotshot crews and smokejumping teams, women have proven themselves as indispensable assets in the fight against wildfires. Despite skepticism and resistance, these pioneering women proved their tenacity on the fire lines, demonstrating their skill, resilience, and dedication to the cause.

First Women in Fire: According to the National Forest Foundation, the first documented instance of women fighting fires was in 1915. Due to the absence of men fighting in the war or simply not enough male fire crews available due to them being outnumbered by fires, wives of forest service rangers were trained to assist in fighting fires.

All-Women Wildland Firefighting Crew: In 1971, Caroline Peters was terminated from her job as a wildland firefighter for the Alaska Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after only four hours on the job. The reason for her termination was that the BLM was unwilling to provide separate sleeping and bathroom facilities for women on the fire line. However, if she could gather at least twelve women, the BLM would assess whether women were suitable for working as wildland firefighters. Caroline, who was 20 years old at the time, gathered 23 women, all of whom passed the training and, in some respects, exceeded their male counterparts. The group went on to assist other firefighting crews during the Wickersham Dome Fire near Fairbanks, Alaska. This group of women proved that they were just as capable as their male colleagues, and their success paved the way for more opportunities for women in firefighting.

Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management. First all-women wildland firefighter crew in Alaska.

First Female Smokejumper: In 1979, Deanne Shulman became the first female smokejumper. Though reaching this title was challenging, she proved that she was just as capable as her male counterparts and paved the way for future female smokejumpers. Unfortunately, she was initially denied a spot on the crew because she was just under the weight requirement, even though she met the physical fitness standards. It was even more frustrating that some underweight men were on the crew. However, with the help of one of the "underweight" men, she filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission and was allowed to try again if she met the 130-pound weight requirement. In 1981, she completed rookie training and spent five years jumping at the McCall, ID Smokejumper base.

First Female Superintendent: In 1989, Margaret Doherty became the first woman hired as a Hotshot Crew Superintendent in the United States for the Lolo Hotshots, paving the way for more women to follow.

Empowering the Next Generation

While the number of women in wildland firefighting has steadily increased over the years, they remain a minority in the male-dominated field. According to the US Forest Service, women make up only a small fraction of the wildland firefighting workforce, comprising under 15% of firefighters nationwide. Despite their undeniable contributions, women in the industry continue to face challenges such as discrimination, lack of representation, and physical demands that are often perceived as barriers to entry. But In recent years, the wildland firefighting industry has made strides in promoting diversity and inclusion, with organizations and agencies actively recruiting and supporting women in firefighting roles. Initiatives such as specialized training programs, mentorship opportunities, and outreach efforts have helped to attract more women to the field and provide them with the support they need to succeed.

As we look to the future, it's clear that the legacy of women in wildland firefighting will continue to inspire and empower future generations. Women in the industry are paving the way for a more inclusive and diverse workforce by advocating for equal opportunities, breaking down barriers, and amplifying their voices. Their courage, resilience, and unwavering commitment to service serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for all.

Wildland Fire Training Camps for Women

WTREX: The Women in Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges provide a safe and supportive environment for hands-on fire training. Check their site for the next training date.

Women in Wildland Fire Camp: If you want to kickstart your career as a wildland firefighter, the USDA Forest Service is selecting a few applicants to attend and finish the camp. The Coconino National Forest is accepting applications until March 31.

Fire Leadership for Women: A training camp for women to build a community of female leaders through prescribed burns. Training sessions have begun for the year, but check their website for new updates.

In the intense and challenging environment of wildfires, women working in wildland firefighting have demonstrated strength, leadership, and the ability to bring about change. From the fire's front lines to leadership positions, their courage, resilience, and determination have transformed the industry and inspired future generations. As we celebrate Women's History Month, we honor and appreciate the pioneering women who paved the way. Let us commit ourselves to building a future where everyone, regardless of gender, has the opportunity to thrive and make a difference.

True North has invested over 30 years into researching, designing, and manufacturing innovative gear and clothing for first responders and industrial safety workers. We provide the pinnacle in performance through a design philosophy that embraces durability, comfort, and protection as inclusive elements. Designing and delivering dependable products is essential to our overarching mission to support and protect customers operating in life-risking environments every day. As part of these efforts, we focus on actions that improve and support the great outdoors. Through our partnership with 1% for the Planet, and as a Climate Neutral certified organization, we’re putting our resources and attention on helping the environment that our customers live and work in because a safer landscape means fewer lives on the line, along with healthier land, environment, and air.