True Story: I’m a Female Wildfire Fighter

What would it be like to work as a hotshot, a wildfire fighter? It's an overwhelmingly male-dominated field; what would it be like to do it as a woman? Click through for one woman's story
What would it be like to work as a hotshot, a wildfire fighter? It’s an overwhelmingly male-dominated field; what would it be like to do it as a woman? This is Gina’s story.

How did you get into fire fighting?

I always wanted to be a firefighter, it seemed exciting to me. I like to be outside, lift heavy things and sleep on the ground!

In college, I got a job with the forest service working on trails. My first week on the job, they asked if I wanted to get my red card (training, and necessary qualifications for forest fires) I said absolutely!

The training is a week long. I learned about the different types of fire crews and I remember the instructor saying hotshots were the top dogs. He said they had the most difficult, demanding, scary job and that you had to really prove yourself in order to be a hotshot. I was sold I didn’t want to mess around with anything else!

However, hotshot crews don’t hire people without previous fire experience. I returned home from training to Logan where the Logan Hotshots are based. I walked in and told the supervisor I wanted to be a hotshot and they should keep me in mind if they needed anyone.

The VERY next day I was doing a 14-mile hike across the Wellsville mountains. When I returned to my car, I had a note saying the Hotshots were looking for me! They had another woman on the crew get injured and they needed a replacement….they were headed to a fire that day. They thought of me because I had just been in there the day before.

Well, I didn’t even have fire boots (logging style boots) yet, so I ended up wearing my bosses boots (I have a size 6 foot, he wears god knows what) but I wasn’t going to complain. I wanted this so bad.

We arrived at the incident near Provo, Utah at about 10 pm that night. We ended up working a 40-hour straight shift, digging fireline (similar to digging trenches, chain gang stuff….!) I think I fell asleep standing up leaning on my tool at one point.

My feet were covered in blisters and the helicopter that was suppose to pick us up at the top of the mountain broke down and we had to walk miles out. This was probably the single hardest I ever had to do but I felt like I could handle anything after that!

The crew liked me and hired me permanently after that. I also met my husband that night! How cool it that!?

How difficult is it to become a hot shot?

Hotshotting is hard, dirty work, you have to be prepared to drop EVERYTHING at a moment’s notice. You need to be comfortable knowing you might not return home for two weeks at a time.

We generally work 16 hours a day for 14 days straight, come home for two days and repeat! You sleep on the ground nearly every night and you eat shitty food from Sysco or Military rations. You just need energy to keep you going and sometimes that’s cookies, chips, or white bread sandwiches. You dig trenches or run chainsaws and hike over steep terrain (fires are never on flat ground, right!?) all day long.

Forget about eight hours of sleep, get used to 4-6. You have to be able to carry 45 pounds over rough terrain all day, do seven pull-ups, and run a mile and a half in 10:30 minutes. Most importantly you have to have a hell of a sense of humor.

By the end of the summer you are physically and mentally spent. You have to be extremely comfortable with being VERY uncomfortable. But there is a weird sense of peace there though – knowing what you are capable of enduring.

What are your co-workers like? How many women do this?

Your co-workers are what makes the job worthwhile. They are a bunch of (guys generally) that are so full of life, energy, and enthusiasm. Most hotshots are in their early 20’s and not married yet. They are very adventurous and everyone swaps stories about the different countries they visited over the winter months.

Many do ski patrol work or are students in the off season (Nov-April). There are not many woman. I was the only one at my station this past year, but some years there are a few. You have to get used to a lot of “man talk”: women, balls, and dirty movies.

Tell us about an average day when you’re fighting fires.

Wake up 5 am, take ten minutes to pack your stuff up, eat breakfast, dig/cut/hike until dark. We remove vegetation with hand tools and chain saws in order to stop the fire.

Sometimes we use drip torches or fusses to light back fires. This is very effective in light vegetation to stop a fire. When a fire runs out of oxygen or fuel it goes out. Usually we eat lunch sometime mid-day and then keep working. At dark, you return to wherever camp is, eat dinner and bed down.

What do you do in the off season?

In the off season I like to travel. I do a lot of biking, hiking, camping and exploring. My husband and I have been on several multi-day,self-supported bike trips. We like to find the sun, so we spend a lot of time in Arizona. We’ve been to Mexico, Italy, The Bahamas, the Florida Keys,and all over the US during out off seasons.

I also teach Yoga, personal train and work as a chef during the winter.

Have you ever been in any really dangerous situations?

Anytime you’re dealing with Mother Nature things can get dangerous. Some of the biggest killers during fires are actually car accidents, helicopter crashes, and falling trees.

We’ve been run out by fires, having to get to our “safety zone” (already burned areas or large mineral soil areas that can’t burn) seen trees fall right in front of us and have to fly in helicopters quite a bit. I’ve been on many fires where fatalities occurred.

Do you plan on doing this forever?

Absolutely not! I am 32 years old and I am getting tired! Last year I had to pee in a Big Gulp cup in the back of a truck with 10 dudes because they wouldn’t stop – that was a turning point for me! I am hoping to get a personal chef business going. I make vegan and raw food. and I’m very interested in yoga and nutrition.

What are the benefits of living this life style?

I have seen some many places I would have never ever seen otherwise. I spent two weeks on the Salmon River, I’ve been to Alaska and I’ve seen wilderness areas in all the western states.

If you like the outdoors, it is an amazing way to see the country! I also really enjoy having 6 months off a year. If you live simply you can stretch your money for the whole Winter.

What advice would you give to anybody looking to get into fire fighting?

Practice hiking with a big heavy pack! Check out www.usajobs.opm.gov. There are a million fire jobs just waiting to be filled every year. It’s good if you’re young and don’t have big family commitments, but not impossible if you do. You just need an understanding spouse.

Would any of you be interested in hotshotting? Any questions for Gina?

P.S. Other adventurous interviews: I fly planes upside down + I’m a celebrity bodyguard

9 Comments

Sixdoublefivethreetwoone

I got my red card last fall. Putting in hours now doing restoration burns-prairie, savanna, and forest. Lots of fun, but as she said dangerous as hell. I've been 70 feet from 400 acres of indian grass and big bluestem going up and still got heat blisters through my face shield. I have a buddy who is a D.C. firefighter (structural) and he said he would never touch wildfire. Props to you, brave soul!

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Anonymous

Another favorite story of Gina's…

One of the other Shot girls was dared to drink some guys "boot juice". The crew had been out for a week or so, hiking in wet conditions. The dumped any juice that was in his boot AND wrung out his sock into a glass. She drank it. for something like $50.

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alphaandomega

I can't even imagine what it's like to be a firefighter…it's physically demanding, not to mention very frightening! I admire fire fighters for their bravery!

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