Women Firefighters in a Predominantly Male Culture
Women Firefighters Say Abuse is Rife but Men Go Unpunished – The Guardian News May, 2018
and an historic perspective…
Fighting Forest Fires is Filthy Work – Lake Chelan, Washington State 1977
By Deidre Duffy – Asheville, North Carolina
Fighting forest fires is filthy work. Grit and grime, soot and smoke get in every nook and cranny, every orifice of your body. It doesn’t bother you much while you are digging fire line, dragging hoses or busting up smoldering logs.
But after your shift ends, after you’ve carried your meal tray to the dish washing station, after you finally take off your grubby boots and stinky socks, you then become keenly aware that under every nail is a pile of dirt, that your nostrils are full of gunk, that the smell of burnt wood exudes from the top of your head to the soles of your feet.
Fire camps are generally erected in places like parking lots, fairgrounds or school yards, a safe distance from the burning fire and usually too far from a natural water source for dirty firefighters to take a dip. In 1977 when I first heard that my fire crew was going to Lake Chelan I thought this camp would be the exception. I visualized taking a refreshing swim at the end of each day. But despite the name, the Forest Service fire camp was dry, set up in a young apple orchard many miles from the lake.
For some reason my crew from the Mt. Adams Ranger District was assigned night duty on that fire. Each evening we loaded up our Forest Service rigs with our pulaskis, hoses, and bladder bags, drove to the lake and without taking a moment to wash in the water, transferred the equipment onto a boat and motored up the long lake past the edges of civilization and into the wilderness area at the north end. The twenty of us then trudged inland with all our stuff until we reached our assigned area where we spread ourselves up and down the rugged forested hillside. For safety sake only one of us at a time could traverse into the burnt area to patrol for hot spots. Waiting in the semi-blackness and semi-silence to “mop up” was a surreal experience. The lovely quiet was occasionally broken by the sizzle of water on hot embers or loud cracklings further away when the still blazing fire engulfed more trees. In the distance we spied various shades and shapes of oranges, yellows, reds and whites. But for our direct light we only had cheap headlamps that we used sparingly to preserve their batteries.
Fighting fires in the dark was not only unusual but also quite messy. You end up tripping constantly over hidden logs and then landing in the ash covered earth. And when you douse smoldering logs, the sooty steam seems to find its way directly to your face, especially mine since I’m short. I often looked like I had on those Halloween nights as a child when I rubbed charcoal all over my face, pretending to be a hobo.
At the 1977 Lake Chelan Fire there were roughly 1000 men and exactly six women. My Washington State crew had four of the women and the other two came from Montana. The ratio is not surprising given that this fire had a high percentage of the more experienced hotshot crews and the first woman to be hired by the Forest Service to fight fires was in Alaska just six years earlier.
The organizers of the Lake Chelan fire camp either stupidly or cruelly only set up one set of showers which by default became a men’s washroom. The six of us women protested and somehow our complaints found their way through the maze of bureaucracy to the powers that be. In all their wisdom and kindness, they solved the problem by posting a women-only shower time from 6:00pm-6:30pm; a time when two thirds of us females were on duty.
I barely slept that week at Lake Chelan. To begin with, there was the matter of all that grit, soot, and smoke that never saw a shower and despite my best efforts found its way into my once white, government issued, woven paper sleeping bag. And how is someone supposed to sleep in the middle of a blistering day with only a small apple tree for shade and the earth constantly moving? There was an almost comedic continual shifting around those trees as firefighter after firefighter got shocked awake by a blast of sun in their face. But at the time I didn’t think it was at all funny.
And then finally, our crew got assigned to day shift. That evening on the hike, boat ride and drive back to camp my crewmate, Patty and I looked at our watches repeatedly and prayed that we would make it back in time for the 6-6:30 women’s shower. We decided to skip dinner, so we could be there exactly at 6:00; visualizing a full half hour under the water. We discussed which of our clean shirts and shorts we would put on post cleansing, what we would do afterward to make sure we stayed clean, and how we would talk the supply staff into issuing us new sleeping bags. That part would be easy I figured. The government labelled the sleeping bags “disposable” and were liberal with their distribution. To my annoyance some people requested a new bag often but being conservation minded I never threw away my sleeping bag until I left that camp. However, that night would be an exception. After my first shower of the week, I was going to splurge!
And even if the supply staff were tight with the bags, I had an IN with one of them. Earlier in the week he had hailed me down as I walked past his station on my way to breakfast. “Need a new pair of pants?” he called excitedly. “I have the perfect pair for you!” He held up a pair of regulation green fire retardant coated pants and to my surprise they looked like they might actually fit. “A short, Mexican guy cut these off, turned them in to get washed and then must have gotten reassigned before he could pick them up. I haven’t found anyone else short enough to wear them…until YOU!” He made me feel like I was Cinderella and he was the prince … sans the romance. Afterward on my way to meals I always stopped by the supply station to joke and swap tales with my new friend.
To our relief Patty and I arrived back at camp with plenty of time to gather our fresh clothes and toiletries. With our bundles under our arm we headed to the showers, even though it was only 5:40pm. A small hill rose up on one side of the washroom, so we headed up to the top to watch the comings and goings. The sight of those freshly cleaned men coming out filled us with even more anticipation. Then at 5:52 a guy hurried into the shower area.
“He better make it quick”, Patty grumbled.
And to our relief he was out at 5:59.
“Were you the last one in there”? I yelled as we stood up to head down the hill.
“Yup it’s all yours!” he replied sweetly.
And then out of the corner of our eyes we spotted a short, muscular dude rushing towards the washroom.
“Stop!!!!” we yelled but the firefighter just sped up, ran past the sign denoting the women’s shower time and darted into the washroom before we could get there to block him.
My Buddhist friend Patty went ballistic. “Jerk! Asshole’ Fucker!…..”
I, who usually had no problem fighting the good fight, just crumbled back onto the ground, curled into a ball and sobbed.
Cruelties, hardships, and injustices I had suffered as a female came tumbling upon me. I felt for all the women before me who had endured so much. While Patty ranted and raved and eventually flushed that idiot out of the shower, I had an internal cleansing. And soon afterward my body too was clean!
Deidre Duffy is a gleaner, a health care worker, a writer and Womansong chorus member . She’s also a community activist in the areas of food and sustainability. In the mid seventies, after twelve years of Catholic School in a tame suburb of Cleveland, Ohio she escaped to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest where she found peace, exhilaration, and kindred spirits working in the national forest; fighting fires, maintain trails, planting trees and monitoring streams. She, of course, also faced discrimination, sexism and a bunch of good ol’ boys.
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