On either side of the highway, miles of high desert flew by, endless plains punctuated by the occasional scrubby stand of sagebrush. Hot air poured through the buggy windows. Sweat threaded down my spine, collecting under my thighs. We'd been fighting a big campaign fire when we'd been reassigned to a new start on the Lassen. Now, we were doing 70 across a dead zone between mountain ranges like purple mirages in the distance.
My bladder was painfully full. I tried not to move, starting to feel a little nauseous.
Finally, our squad boss pulled over in a gravel turnout.
"Sorry, Kelly," he called back. "This is the best I could do."
"It's ok!" I shouted, hopping out of the buggy after the guys.
The boys scattered, standing at the crease of gravel and grass, unzipping and letting fly. I scanned the area. There: a group of bushes, perfect. But when I moved in that direction, a barbed wire fence blocked my way. I started to panic. Dashing farther from the buggy, I found a stand of brush that wasn't great, but seemed doable if I bushwhacked a little.
When I tried to crawl in, however, I discovered that it was a thicket of thorns. Barbs caught my hair and snagged my sleeves. Shit.
Everyone had loaded up and was waiting on me. I remembered the advice to rookies when the season started: "Just don't be last. Don't ever be last." Shit! Last again.
Without peeing, I climbed back in the buggy and flopped into my seat.
"All good?" the captain called back from the front.
"Good!" the guys answered.
I kept quiet, remembering how someone had said you could die of a ruptured bladder.
When you think of women as wildland firefighters, you might think our "problems" consist of the physical challenges we encounter. The push-ups and pull-ups with our (stereotypically) smaller, bird-boned upper bodies. The heavy lifting. The running and hiking, with our (stereotypically) shorter legs. The perennial pee hiding-place dilemmas. And of course, shark week.
I'm surprised not to have seen more anecdotes about changing a tampon in a flimsy stand of trees a few yards from an active fire edge with a dozen sweaty, grunting men in earshot, a small pool of blood collecting on the pine litter as you ransack the brain of your line gear, realizing with horror there's not a scrap of toilet paper inside.
Really, where are those stories?
But while I was not the fastest hiker or runner by any means — full discretion: I was the slowest runner, and near back of the pack for hiking — that wasn't a big problem. I tried hard, kept up, and almost always wore a smile. Turns out that was enough.
When thinking of women in wildland fire, you may also think of sexual harassment issues, overt discrimination, and the subtler forms of exclusion like being left out of strategic conversations or passed over for promotions.
These problems remain widespread. As part of a longer piece I might finish writing someday when fire season ends, I spoke with quite a few female firefighters, and I was dismayed at how common these issues still are. There is so much our agencies must change in order to make firefighting an equitable, supportive place for women — but for my part, at least so far, I've been lucky; my crew is amazing, and these aren't (yet) problems I've had to confront on the line.
In 2020, I became a so-called "woman in wildland fire." After working in trails and as a wilderness ranger, I wrangled my way onto a hotshot crew in Northern California. I was a rookie, and the only woman on the crew; I was also the first woman to join in a decade.
I was a GS-04 temp -- and if you're not in this line of work, that means a temporary seasonal employee, a firefighter whose job title is officially "forestry technician." We got paid 14-and-change dollars an hour when not on fires, were ineligible for most federal benefits, and got laid off in the fall when the rain or snow began to fly.
I had an amazing, challenging, life-expanding first season. We logged over 1,000 hours of overtime, worked on California's first million-acre fire, and pulled off some epic burn shows and 24-plus-hour shifts. I made friends I'll cherish for the rest of my life while learning to dig a cup trench and fire a veri pistol. Meanwhile, half the town where I lived burned down in the Labor Day Firestorm, in a fire that took many of my friends' homes and left the rest of us shell-shocked and wracked with survivors' guilt.
I could write a novel about the grief and excitement and brotherly love that was my first season in fire. But for the moment, I'm interested in one of questions posed by this project: "What's the biggest challenge you face as a female in fire?"
My biggest challenge in my first year, as the only female on a hotshot crew, was just that: being the ONLY female. And not just on the crew — often I'd be the only woman on the division, or the only woman on a small fire, or the only woman in a chow line of a hundred people in fire camp. The simple reality of not having other women around — no female colleagues, no female friends or role models at work — was tough. I felt like a boy being raised among wolves, or an alien trying to pass as human: the only one of my kind.
Let me be clear that this isn't a complaint against my crew. I work with an amazing group of men. They're kind and respectful and treat me as an equal. They have come to feel like my big and little brothers, and that annoying cousin you love anyway, and the history teacher who scolds you for giggling together in the back of the buggy.
In fact, if anything these dudes were too careful around me. Someone must have given them a stern lecture about how easily I might cry harassment, because most of them would barely speak to me or meet my eye at first. This meant it took a long time, and a lot of effort on my part, to break through the awkwardness and form friendships.
As if I might spontaneously combust at the utterance of the words "titty bar," the guys clustered in little groups, half-turned away from me. When I broke in like a gawky middle-schooler trying to sit with the cool kids, they censored themselves. Or they'd blurt something out and immediately say, "Sorry, Kelly!"
Eventually, I made clear that I was pretty cool with most, though not all, talk. Discussion of going to the strip club didn't bother me. The way everyone addressed the crew, "Good work, boys," and then added, as an afterthought, "and girl," didn't bother me. It was old habit, but they were trying hard to include me. A joke comparing a woman to a dishwasher really bothered me, but I told that guy to never say something like that again EVER, and we moved on. By my second season, we were great friends.
There were other little awkward things, like how much more privacy I required to urinate on the side of a desert highway. Like trying to change out of PT clothes in the buggy—especially if you make the tragic mistake of wearing running tights without underwear. Like the conversations I couldn't really participate in: dirt bikes, guns, fantasy football. Of course, that wasn't about gender. Plenty of women love football (and plenty of men don't)(and plenty of people who don't identify as women or men do and don't like sports).
Another fun part of being the only woman was learning to talk trash. At first I thought the guys were being viciously cruel, but I came to understand that calling another guy a "coward" or teasing him about his job performance was a type of affection, a way to connect. It took a while before it felt natural to call someone a "turd," but -- for better or worse -- I got there.
You know a job has changed you when you find yourself calling everyone "dude" and throwing up a middle finger, saying "Suck it," when you beat someone on a hike.
Bit by bit, I assimilated, and gradually I began to forget that there was anything too singular about being a girl. We had all chosen to work in the woods, to suck smoke and ash, to push our bodies beyond their limits, and to be away from home for the better part of six months. We were more alike than we were different.
As this was happening — as I was finding my place in what had been, until that year, a man's crew — I was continually surprised not to see many other females doing it as well.
Where were the women?
Unconsciously, I'd scan the line. Ah, there was a girl, on an engine across the way. And there was a young woman from the CCC handing out dinners; but that didn't count. Oh look, that shot crew has a woman! Hi!
On Day 13 on the North Complex, I chatted with a group of ladies from a Tahoe strike team and realized I hadn't spoken to another woman in two full weeks.
Last off-season, I read Amanda Monthei's wonderful piece in Outside magazine about the first female hotshots, the pioneers who started working in fire in the 60's and 70's. Some of what they said brought tears to my eyes, because they were so brave — and because their challenges were all too familiar.
But I noticed that both Monthei and some of these women from way back reported working on crews with four to eight women. And a friend on a Wildland Fire Module in Idaho told me that fully half her crew was female, including the overhead. That's amazing, but it's not my experience. The joke about the difference in regions is sadly true. They call Region Six "R-Chicks" because they're known for hiring women. In Region Five, you're lucky to see one other female on an entire two-week assignment.
So what are the statistics?
Last winter, I spoke to a woman who extensively surveyed firefighters and compiled data pulled from resource orders on incidents. Here's what she found: at most, 10% of wildland firefighters working in primary fire positions are female. And in leadership positions, the numbers drop by half — just 5% of supervisors in wildland are women.
That's not many of us. And based on what I've seen in two summers spent primarily in North Ops (Northern California), the numbers are far less in some geographic areas.
Further, what if we broke it down by module type? What percentage of smokejumpers are female? How about female hotshots? I've worked alongside plenty of shot crews with zero ladies, so average those in with the standard 1-3 girls per crew, and you're looking at...five percent? Three percent?
110 hotshot crews in the U.S. is 2200-2400 people, or a population about twice the size of my high school. If even 10% of hotshots are female (probably an overestimate), that's 220 women doing this job in the nation. That's a group smaller than my graduating class. We could all get together and have a pretty sick party. Maybe we will.
While some of the numbers are guesswork, what I feel sure of is this:
We need more women in wildland fire.
We need more women doing this job — and not just so I don't have to feel alone. We need more women (and people of color, and people from different regions, and people with different backgrounds and educations) because a wider range of people makes for a smarter, healthier, more functional workplace. Women tend to lead in different ways than men - not better or worse, just different - and that difference can make our response to fires more dynamic and well-rounded.
According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Fire Administration, "Despite more women serving in the fire service in recent years, growth and inclusion of women in the ranks has been extremely slow and lags behind the growth of women in other male-dominated fields."
This isn't cool. We need to figure out why more women aren't doing this job, and make the changes necessary to include them.
Yet simply "recruiting women" isn't the answer. Anyone, man or woman, needs a pretty specific set of qualities to become and remain a hotshot. You have to want to work hard, beyond hard, even when you're exhausted. You need to do your chores like an OCD maniac, and sometimes compete with others to be the one who's overachieving the hardest. You must understand that the crew's needs will often come before yours, and that building good relationships is everything. You're there to see how much you can give, not to see what you can get.
It's a pretty intense set of job expectations. That's why just 2,400 of 331 million Americans do this job — and most of them burn out within a few years.
We need to recruit women and others who aren't the stereotypical six foot white male in his puffy jacket and beanie (honesty: I've got the jacket and beanie, too). But we need to be targeted in that recruitment, and make sure we're finding people who WANT to be sore and sleep on the ground all summer, people who actually ENJOY being pushed beyond their physical and psychological comfort zones. And once we find those who are up to the challenge, we need to offer them the support, training and mentorship they need to build solid careers in fire. Then and only then will we see more than 5% of Superintendent, Division, or Chief positions filled by women.
I did finally get to pee, that day in the desert in 2020. Too embarrassed to yell from the back of the buggy, I sent a pleading text to my captain: "Anywhere. Even a decent-sized bush would do." We stopped at the next gas station, and they only seemed a little annoyed with me for asking. I didn't care; the relief of easing my bladder was too exquisite.
By the season's end, I could see how much these men had, in the most open-hearted manner, accepted me. They had encouraged me to train and get faster, recognized my efforts to carry the heavy stuff, teased me, comforted me the best they knew how when I was upset, and worked by my side as equals. And I loved them —loved their fart jokes and goofy dance moves, how brave and kind they were, and how on cold mornings one guy wore his sleeping bag as a snuggie. Sometimes I even forgot about gender, and we were just a bunch of friends doing a job together. We were all part of this crew, and together we'd been through something extraordinary. I might be the "and girl" in a lot of fumbling sentences, but that was okay. It was an honor to be there. And by my second season (this year), it doesn't even feel like a question: I'm just another crew member.
There's a movement afoot to address critical issues in wildland fire. I'm so excited about what the good people of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters Committee are up to; it's high time, or past due, for federal wildland firefighters to receive the living wage and benefits appropriate to the job's challenges and risks. I'm eager to help.
As a part of this cause, or as a separate effort, we need to advocate for diversity in wildland fire. This has been a project since the 70's, but the work isn't done. If non-white and non-male Americans aren't even applying for these jobs, we need to figure out why, and make changes. We need to recruit, train, and retain a broader range of people. Our workplace — the forest, the engine, the crew, the line — will be stronger for it.
It's the experience of a lifetime to do this work. More people deserve the chance to try.