A trial by imaginary fire for women who want to fight real wildland flames
After passing the application process and a grueling physical test, six women take part in the U.S. Forest Service’s Women in Wildland Fire Basic Training Camp in the Angeles National Forest.
The veteran wildland firefighter holds up a stopwatch, his thumb on the button.
“Everyone ready?” he asks.
For four of the competitors lined up in the scrubby terrain near Hansen Dam, it will soon become apparent that they should have answered, “No.”
Fifty-four candidates filed applications to participate in the U.S. Forest Service’s Women in Wildland Fire Basic Training Camp — the first to be held in Southern California’s Angeles National Forest.
Now it’s down to 10.
Women have fought wildfires in the U.S. for decades. But a wide gender gap remains, with women holding about 13% of the permanent wildfire-suppression jobs in the Forest Service.
To address this, in 2012 the Forest Service launched its first all-women training program, in New Mexico.
“Our goal was to do a better job of targeting women and preparing them mentally and physically for work on fire lines,” says Bequi Livingston, the Forest Service fire specialist who came up with the concept. “Since then, the idea has spread to national forests in Arizona, Idaho, Montana and California.”
So, on a hot and sticky June morning in Los Angeles, the remaining candidates, ages 19 to 52, fidget uncomfortably under the weight of 45-pound vests.
Those who can scramble through the three-mile course in under 45 minutes will advance immediately into five days of training for a job that can require 16-hour shifts, night and day, for up to two weeks straight — often in rugged wilderness where, in addition to walls of flame and smoke roiling with lethal toxins, the workplace amenities may include rattlesnakes, careening rocks and burnt trees crashing over in the night.
Still, many are tempted by the $14-an-hour salary, with additional pay for overtime, holidays and hazardous duty, and a chance to forge a new career path.
MacKenzie Jennings, 27, a single mother who works as a waitress near Lake Hughes, says she’s going into the trial with a sense of purpose.
“Waiting on tables,” she says, stretching, “is not a lifetime job.”
A few feet away, Estephany Campos, 27, an art teacher who grew up in South Los Angeles, takes a swig from a water bottle.
“I don’t intend to fail,” she mutters.
The thumb clicks the stopwatch.
45 pounds and 45 minutes
The aspiring trainees surge forward. Almost immediately they encounter a discouraging obstacle: A Labrador retriever has collapsed in the middle of the trail.
“Heat exhaustion,” a passerby says.
By the time they hit the final half-mile, an asphalt bike path stretching along the crest of the dam, the women are leaning forward, grimacing.
One competitor’s stride gets choppy and she falls behind. Then another. In the end, four fail the test.
Sales clerk Kelsey Almendariz, 27, of Inglewood is the first across the finish line, with 11 minutes to spare.
She struggles to catch her breath.
“The whole time ... I kept telling myself … ‘Don’t disappoint.’”
Campos and Jennings also cross the line in the allotted time, faces flushed, legs wobbling. So do Adela Montserrat Valencia, 19, of Cameron Park; Hannah Siebert, 19, of Bakersfield; and Yasmine Wolfe, 52, of Sunland.
Campos immediately texts her boyfriend, a firefighter with a hotshot crew out of Flagstaff, Ariz., not far from where a wildfire in 2013 killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots: “Yo! I passed.”
A few hours later a caravan of green Forest Service vehicles delivers the new firefighting class to a remote camp in the San Gabriel Mountains, about a 45-mile drive northeast of Pasadena.
Hungry, tired and sore, they trundle to assigned cabins.
Overseeing the immersion course are two self-confident veteran Forest Service firefighters.
Engine Capt. Linda Winkler joined the Forest Service in the early 1990s, when, she says, “women had to take a lot of crap because there were so few of us around.”
“My mother encouraged me to become a firefighter,” she says. “Mom is a badass and saw a little bit of herself in me.”
Kristen Allison, a former hotshot, is 5 feet 1, weighs about 100 pounds and never needs to raise her voice.
Nodding toward the trainees as they file into the camp dining hall that evening, Allison says, “We’re not going to sugarcoat anything.… There will be lots of opportunities for these women to say, ‘I’ve had enough, I want out.’”
Learning to stay alive
The next morning, the candidates suit up in hard hats, brush pants, T-shirts and leather boots and gather at picnic tables.
Joe Darling, a tall, tobacco-chewing Glendora hotshot, lectures the class on the importance of firefighters having escape routes they can use when a fire turns on them to reach safety zones — open space or areas that have already burned.
“Remember, black is your friend,” Darling says. “It’s already burned, so it can’t hurt you.”
He follows up with a demonstration on how to deploy the insulated foil cocoons that firefighters use as a last resort to survive getting hit by a hurricane of flame and smoke.
First, toss your tools and backpack, but keep your phone and a water bottle. Then drop to a kneeling position with your back to the fire, unpack the emergency shelter and shake it open, using the wind to help it unfurl.
Then crawl inside with each hand and foot in a corner, and your feet closer to the fire, he says. “Lay on your stomach and start digging a hole in the dirt under your face to create an air pocket. Then wait it out.”
“How do you know when it’s safe to emerge?” a trainee asks.
“When things cool down,” he replies.
The lessons combine basic meteorology, physics and hydraulics. Experts coach the trainees on how to use a drip torch to set a backfire; how to adjust a fire hose’s seven spray settings; how to sharpen and swing such tools of the trade as the Pulaski, a heavy-duty hoe and ax.
The main thing, an instructor says, is to treat each fire as if it’s trying to kill you.
During a lull, Darling tries to explain the job’s appeal.
“After a day on the fire lines,” he says, “there’s something spiritual about wanting nothing more than a little bit of shade and a sip of water.”
Fighting fire with water
The next morning three fire engines arrive at the camp packed with communications equipment, incendiary devices, work gloves, chain saws, first-aid kits and canvas hoses that trainees will learn to fling out and link, allowing the engine’s pumps to deliver water a mile or more away over rugged terrain.
With the end of a heavy canvas hose draped over her shoulder, Campos cranks the nozzle to full force and blasts water at a blaze she’s been told to imagine heaving up a forested slope.
“Hold it,” says Eduardo Chacon, a Forest Service engineer.
After a quick review of operating procedures, Campos attacks again, this time adjusting the nozzle to more of a mist, covering a wider area and moistening unburned fuel.
“Nice work,” Chacon says. “You’re getting it.”
Leaning on the handle of her shovel, Winkler is visibly pleased with the progress shown by Jennings, a neighbor she encouraged to apply for the camp.
“She’s mature, a hard worker and has what it takes to be a firefighter,” Winkler says. “She’s also searching for a career that will last through retirement.”
But is she ready?
Real tactics; imaginary blaze
On the day before completing the course and receiving their certificates, the women line up beside two pale-green Forest Service engines parked along a narrow, winding road just south of the camp. Adrenaline animates their eyes.
This is the class’ final drill, designed to simulate fully containing a fire on a brush-choked hillside.
An engine captain barks into a hand-held radio to add realism.
“We’re at the one-eighth-acre Pine fire. It’s 75% contained. No structures threatened. No injuries.”
“Got firefighters with you?” a commander at headquarters radios back.
“We have a crew of eight,” the captain responds.
Then the trainees attack the imaginary blaze, chopping shrubs and stumps with axes, rolling boulders aside with pry bars and scraping through carpets of debris until their shovels clear a smooth path down to bare mineral soil roughly three feet wide and growing longer by the minute.
“Swinging!” one announces.
“Bump a dime!” yells another, signaling a crewmate to move 10 feet up the line.
For a minute, Campos’ Pulaski repeatedly bounces off a rubbery root.
“Enough of this nonsense!” she grumbles.
After a few more strikes, she severs it.
“’Bout time!” she shouts when the razor-sharp blade finally slices through. Then she turns and high-fives Jennings.
When the instructors tell the trainees they have finally encircled the imaginary fire with their line, there are more outbursts of exhausted joy.
Then they learn that they’re not done.
Hoisting backpacks brimming with hose, they charge back up the slope.
“Water coming!” shouts a trainee back at the engine.
“Water coming!” responds another.
The hose bulges. Hot spots are knocked down. Embers are mopped up. And finally instructors declare the Pine fire conquered.
A hand-held radio growls a pressing question from headquarters: “What’s the name of the crew helping out up there?”
The captain shoots a quizzical look at Hernan Sotela, a camp mentor, who, after 39 years in the Forest Service, plans to retire in December.
Sotela invents a name on the spot.
“It’s the Angel Heart crew from Los Angeles,” he says.
Blowing dust from their noses and wiping dirt from their eyes, the trainees applaud.
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