Calif. national park, conservation agencies partner to promote women in firefighting

"We're out here and we're doing the same thing that men are doing," one firefighter said of the Yosemite Women’s Fire Internship

By Melissa Montalvo
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — When Rocio Macias told her parents she was joining a fire crew, she was told: "This is a man's job."

"My mom didn't want me to do it," said Macias. "She said 'Ay, ¿qué andas haciendo (What are you doing)?'"

Her father also disapproved, saying that he didn't want her to endure the same physical hardship he experienced working as a plumber. "He always told me, 'I don't want you getting your hands dirty, I don't want you breaking your back because I had to suffer through that.'"

But family disapproval didn't deter the young firefighting apprentice, a participant in the Yosemite Women's Fire Internship.

Firefighting is an industry that has long been dominated by men. A 2020 study by the National Fire Protection Association said that only 4% of career firefighters in the United States are women.

The Yosemite Women's Fire Internship, a partnership between the California Conservation Corps and Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service, is aimed to change these numbers.

This summer, six female CCC corps-members ranging from ages 19 to 24 were accepted into the inaugural 10-week program that teaches women key skills in basic firefighting, fire management, and chainsaw operations, while also connecting them to mentors and networking opportunities to prepare for future fire careers.

'I didn't think I would like something like this'

When Macias first joined the CCC, she worked for six months on the kitchen rotation where she cooked for the Placer Center base camp. She said she was bored of mopping the floors every night, when she decided to switch to a Cal Fire crew at her center. Then, a program director told her to apply for the Yosemite Women's Fire Internship.

"I didn't think I would like something like this," said Macias, who originally set out to study art and animation in community college. A self-proclaimed thrill-seeker, Macias said she is drawn to the physical challenge, the fast-paced environment, and the beautiful landscapes that she sees in wildland firefighting.

Fellow intern Alma Caballero worked for years in the food and retail industries when she realized she wanted a career change. So when she saw a Facebook advertisement for the CCC, she decided to apply.

Caballero said one of her favorite parts of firefighting is the new, challenging experiences. "It's a lot of mental (strength). You have to push yourself," she said.

One of Caballero's biggest sources of inspiration is her family, especially her nieces and nephews. "I want them to look up to me and say, 'Oh, my aunt is doing that? That's crazy!'" She said she hopes her nieces especially see her and think that if she can be a firefighter, they can, too.

When she completes her second corps year, Caballero said she plans to pursue a career in wildland firefighting, and eventually would like to join a city fire department to be closer to her family.

Women have been a part of the CCC fire crews since the inception of the program in the 1970s, said Dana Howard, director of Communications, Outreach, Recruitment & Enrollment for the CCC. What's new, said Howard, is the emphasis on recruiting women in firefighting, and the all-female Yosemite fire crew. "We've got to get do a better job of getting the message out that it is really a viable career for women," he said.

Howard also pointed out that women could have an advantage in wildland firefighting. "You're talking about someone having to charge up a hill...with 40 pounds on their back," said Howard. "A 250-pound linebacker is going to pass out in the first hundred yards."

Women, he said, tend to have smaller, leaner builds, which can help them march up hills and still have the endurance to fight wildfires. "Big and muscular doesn't matter when you're trying to fight a fire," said Howard.

While the Yosemite Women's Fire Internship program is in its first pilot year, Scott Gediman, public affairs officer for Yosemite National Park, said they hope to continue the program and possibly even expand it with more crews and longer internships.

"They're doing great work, they're learning a lot, they're having fun, they're exposed to all different components of park operations," said Gediman. "So there are huge benefits to the park, to the firefighters, and to the community. Their work is making the park safer."

Though not all program participants plan to pursue a full-time job in firefighting, they said they appreciated the career exposure. One participant said she wants to be a helicopter pilot for a search and rescue team. Another participant said the experience helped her understand how fire management is related to her wildlife conservation studies.

Caballero said her advice to women and girls is to step out of their comfort zones and consider a career in firefighting. "You never know, you might end up loving it."

More women firefighters needed in California — and everywhere else

Boosting recruitment is only one challenge to increase the number of female firefighters. Creating an inclusive, safe environment to make sure they stay is another.

The city of Los Angeles was criticized earlier this month for not meeting its goal to increase women in the fire department to 5% as well as for the enduring "frat house culture" of the agency.

In Fresno, only six of the city's firefighters are women, as of 2018, including Fire Chief Kerri Donis.

Some interns, like Caballero, expressed concern about the culture of fire departments as well as the public's idea of who can be a firefighter. "We're out here and we're doing the same thing that men are doing," said Caballero.

The interns said they felt supported by the Yosemite Fire team and valued learning alongside other women. "This is the strongest crew cohesion I've ever experienced," said Rosa Wiedenhoft, a firefighting intern from the CCC San Diego Center.

Wiedenhoft said that seeing a female inmate fire crew at her CCC basecamp is what inspired her to join the fire crew. When she learned of the Yosemite Women's Fire opportunity, she immediately applied.

Yet even after she was accepted, she said she had misgivings. "I was nervous to come out here, even though I wanted it so bad," she said. Some of those nerves came from hearing messages like "this is hard work" and "this is a man's job." But that didn't stop her.

"That's just part of this, everyone's nervous being right next to a fire," said Wiedenhoft.

"If you let statistics determine what way you're going to go in life, you won't be anywhere," said Wiedenhoft. Her advice to girls and women that are intimidated by the thought entering a male-dominated field is to ignore the fear and "dive in."

After meeting a former female smokejumper (a firefighter who parachutes into wildland fires to coordinate the initial attack), Macias said she's contemplating a future career as a smokejumper.

"It's pretty thrilling to think I can jump off a helicopter," said Macias.

As for her parents, Macias said they have had a change of heart now that she's in the internship.

"They're very supportive now."


(c)2021 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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