Why I Left Fire
and why it's important for men to vocally support women and other minorities in the fire community
This newsletter mentions suicide. Please proceed with care if you are managing depression or feel vulnerable. If you’re feeling hopeless, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
There are also mentions of sexual harassment.
If you have experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination in fire, you’re welcome to contact me for support. If you’d like to share your own story, contact me.
Why I Left Fire
People always ask me why I left fire. I always give a different answer, because the question makes me sad. Really, I was bone-tired of my male supervisors and what they had to say about me. That, combined with the residual PTSD I had from a deeply traumatic experience on my first hotshot crew, is why I left.
Take my last season. In 2010, I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska in early April for a job with the Park Service. I was a former hotshot. When I arrived, I was super anxious about mot being in shape, but I was, compared with many of the people I worked with, in excellent shape (this fear about “not being in shape” is something every hotshot and former hotshot understands very well).
I arrived enthusiastic about the job, but I was also managing a lot of stress. My mom, who lived in Seattle, was struggling with alcoholism and claimed to have terminal cancer. That January I’d moved my entire life from Denver, where I’d lived for several years, to Seattle. For three months, before moving to Fairbanks, I worked nights as a housekeeper aat a gym, washing loads and loads of white towels and making the mirrors shine. I’d listen to podcasts all night and snack on popchips and avocados. In the early morning after work I’d drive to the basement room I was renting, sleep for a couple hours, then drive to my mom’s house in Leschi, let myself in, collect her wine bottles, wipe the counters, clean up the house, and make her a breakfast she rarely ate. When she woke, she’d pour herself a glass of wine, usually around 9am.
I was carrying all of this when I arrived in Fairbanks, yet no one at my station would have suspected it. I was jovial, friendly, and kind. I threw myself into HECM training despite my fear of helicopters.
Then, my mom died by suicide in early May.
I flew down to Seattle. As her only child, I was in charge of everything. I needed to figure out what to do with her things, manage her autopsy, her rental house (which we couldn’t afford to keep), her car storage. I had very little money and very little support.
I was there for a week, and then flew back to Fairbanks. I was in Fairbanks for a day, and then got called to a fire (the one in the picture above). Less than a week and a half after my mom’s suicide, I was deep in the Alaskan interior, training as a HECM. My trainer, a guy from my station, was the same GS level as me and had less fire experience than me. He was mercurial, often rude and short with me. With the men who surrounded us, he was friendly and sycophantic.
He and I were part of a group of about five people, managing a helispot (a place where helicopters drop crews and supplies). There was a smokejumper, a former hotshot who was training as an FMO (Fire Management Officer), and eventually two EMT’s and another smokejumper who was there as a gunner, because of bears in the area.
I have a lot to say about my time on that fire, but I’ll cut it short. I was there for four weeks. In fact, I was out on fires or doing field work with barely a break, and in July, deep in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, I started crying.
I started crying and I couldn’t stop crying.
I was flown out of the park, and flew home to Seattle for a week, just to see friends and somehow try to process what had happened with my mom.
A week later, I returned to Alaska.
I have asked myself why I returned to Alaska at all. Why I stayed, when my mom’s suicide was looming so large, and I was in such a vulnerable state. Partially, it was money. I needed money, as my mom had been in deep debt when she died, and I had no savings. But that wasn’t really it. I knew I would sell some of her things and I knew I could get a different job, as a nanny or whatever.
I stayed because I loved being a firefighter. I loved being in the woods, the desert, the tundra. I loved the smell of smoke and sound of chainsaws (I loved running chainsaws) and being in wild places few people saw. I loved my co-workers, even when they were assholes. I loved the challenge, and I loved being challenged.
By the end of my season, in October, I was a certified HECM (Helicopter Crew ?Member) and ABRO (Aircraft Base Radio Operator). I’d started training as a helibase manager and was almost fully signed off. I’d obtained my C Faller, which certified me to fall any size of tree. All of this, along with my four years of hotshot experience and two years on a Type 2 crew meant that I could theoretically be on my way to a career in wildland fire. The next summer, I could have been training as an FMO.
All of my evaluations had been stellar, despite everything I was processing inside my heart. I worked with some amazing folks both with the Park Service and the Alaska Fire Service. Many of the men I worked with were supportive and kind, generous with their knowledge in training me. I got a lot of encouragement. I also was supported by some incredible women, many of whom I still talk to today.
Unfortunately, my direct supervisor, also a woman, didn’t support my career in fire and directly sabotaged my access to training. We’ve talked about this— I contacted a year later and she apologized. This is something that happens in fire; women acting from a place of scarcity. Wildland fire is not an easy place for many women and minorities.
That summer I’d met a bunch of smokejumpers and imagined trying out the following season (I probably would have washed out, but whatever!). During the summer, I spoke as if I were going to come back to Alaska, as if I were going to stay in wildland fire. I thought I was.
Instead, I never came back.
In early October, before I flew back down to Seattle, my supervisor, a man I’d worked closely with all year, sat down with me for evaluations. He held all my evaluations from the year in his hand, some of them coarse and sticky with ash and dirt. Every single one of them was positive.
Then, he told me I was too direct. Too pushy.
When I asked him to give me an example, he reminded me of when I’d come back from Seattle in July. I’d flown out to Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and thrown myself back into work. While I’d been gone, all my co-workers had been trained to operate ATV’s. This training was important, because ATV’s are used generously in Alaska (and in wildland fire in general).
After I arrived, one of the soil scientists (we were camped out in the preserve with many different folks, including a fuels unit from South Dakota and a handful of soils scientists, and often had meals with them) told me that they were going to train someone else on an ATV. When I heard this, I asked my boss if I could attend. He said no. I pushed. Didn’t I need to be able to use an ATV? No, he said. All the guys had been trained, so it wasn’t necessary. But, I said, the training is happening here, and it’s only a few hours, and he offered to include me.
Fires is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My boss said no again, and I essentially told him that he was hobbling me for the rest of the season if he didn’t let me get certified.
He relented, I got my ATV training, and that was that.
When he told me that me pushing for my own training was “pushy,” I thought of all the times my co-workers, men with much less fire experience than I had, had pushed my boss around, made fun of him, and broken rules he’d set. Rules that I had consistently followed (for the most part). I compared their behavior with mine. And I got pissed.
I pointed to my evaluations, and then pointed out that he was calling me pushy because I had advocated for a necessary training. He nodded, as if in understanding.
It’s not because of one person’s shitty feedback that I left fire. But as I absorbed that evaluation, and what it implied (that a woman asking for what she deserves is somehow out of line, while men are allowed a wide range of behaviors and given a wide berth when they misbehave), I was sapped of my energy. Throughout my fire career I’d constantly felt like I was under a microscope, while many of the men I worked with were totally out of the frame. I was constantly watched and evaluated.
My mom had died by suicide in May, and I’d made it through the entire fire season by the skin of my teeth. I made it because I loved being a firefighter. My performance reviews were good because I wanted to learn, and had always been hungry to learn. And because I was kind, sharp, intelligent, strong, and really fucking good at my job.
Instead of developing and encouraging me; instead of seeing my “pushiness” as determination and strength, my boss saw it as a negative. And it wasn’t the first time that had happened.
I flew home to Seattle fully expecting to fight fires the following year, but when it came time to apply to jobs, I just couldn’t. How could I risk working with someone who would want to make me smaller rather than support my growth?
This isn’t across the board. As a hotshot, specifically in Southern California, I had a superintendent/captain (RIP Frank Esposito) who encouraged and supported me, and saw my strength. Many of them men (and women) I worked with encouraged and supported me.
But I had also experienced life on a sexist, abusive hotshot crew, whose culture was deeply toxic, and I carried that trauma with me without being fully aware of how it affected me. I’d been stalked by a crew member, and left a permanent job on a hotshot crew.
On another crew, a squad boss followed me around intensely, both criticizing and praising my work, policing my attire, and then, when the season was over, asked me out on a date. It enraged me to know that so much of his attention, whether positive or negative, was because he wanted to date me.
The funny thing is, I would have dated him if he hadn’t been so laser-focused on my performance, and wrapped it all together in such an inappropriate way.
Earlier in the year on the same crew, a squad boss spread a rumor that he’d slept with me. I only found out because someone on my squad, someone I still consider a friend, told me. Luckily, when I told my superintendent what was happening he took care of it right away. Some wouldn’t.
I look back at myself then and wish I’d had the guts to tell my boss in Alaska to fuck off and shove his evaluations up his ass (okay, less harsh, but you get the point). But I was someone who wanted to make others happy. As a woman, I’d been taught to please others. So, I only told my boss that the season had been hard because of my mother’s death, and left it at that.
I’ve reflected on that lost career. That lost life I could have had in fire. And I am not regretful of leaving. I am grateful for the life I have now, where I get to write about fire. I left fire and got my BA, my MFA, and am headed to get my PhD. I’m proud of myself. That said, my accomplishes are a direct result of my determination and hard work, which is also something I brought to my work in fire. Often, those qualities were seen as threatening to some of the men I worked with.
I don’t want any woman, any trans/nonbinary person, any minority to experience what I experienced, either in the soft discrimination of my last experience or the hard sexism of my first (which you can read about in my book when it comes out).
It still happens. Minorities are still marginalized in fire, and culture is set by region, by crew, by station; so any minority in fire is always taking a risk by taking a job in a place they haven’t fully vetted. People who report bad behavior are often hazed out or moved, while their perpetrators stay in their position of power.
The stories I’ve heard, y’all.
Often, people who are of lower ranking (and therefore have the least power) in fire are also young. I was nineteen when I started fighting fires. This is also something that needs to be taken into account— that many young firefighters are (whether they want to admit it or not) malleable. They will often go with the flow, culturally speaking. So what kind of cultures are leaders promoting?
This thing is, minorities aren’t the ones who need to change things. Men need to work harder to interrupt bias and sexism. They need to speak up when they see something happen. They need to advocate for minorities. What does this look like?
It looks like calling it out when someone says something sexist or racist. It looks like examining our own assumptions about what someone is capable of, or who someone is. It looks like eliminating hazing. It looks like stepping in when we see a minority interrupted or see their ideas stolen. It looks like creating an environment where everyone is valued for what they bring to the table.
Some people in fire, whatever their background, are lucky enough not to experience discrimination that traumatizes them or affects their jobs or well being. But many do. And I wonder how many smart, badass people have left fire because of this discrimination, when often they are the people who may change the culture in a positive way. We need to make space for everyone.
Tell me: have you experienced discrimination in your field? If not, have you done things to advocate for someone who has? What do you think needs to change as far as wildland fire culture, and what do you think is working?