Dec 3rd, 2018, 07:04 PM

Goodness, Gracious...Women Fight Fire?

By Cody Mannick
Fire in Washington State 2016 Photo Courtesy of Mark Blank
It's 2018, but sexism is still rife in physical labor careers.

Have you ever been so close to a fire, there is no oxygen?  You take a deep breath just to find nothing, not even smoke, filling your lungs. I stood inches away from the fire that consumed Eastern Washington in 2015, determined to not let another home go up in flames. With my fireproof attire, a hose and only a bandana to cover my mouth, I charged into the black, thick cloud of smoke before me. The head of the fire is the most dangerous, the most erratic and the most unpredictable: that's where I ended up. Six feet tall, five miles wide and moving at about 45 miles per hour, the only thing keeping the flames from consuming me was the hose in my hand. Every time I tried to take a breath, my lungs pulled in nothing. It felt like suffocating. I would take a step back to get a breath. While I filled my lungs with oxygen, I also could feel the embers singe my throat. Minutes felt like hours as the fire circled around me. For the first time as a firefighter I thought, "This is it." The world around me rapidly became fuzzy. I could hear the whirling of a helicopter near by, then suddenly, a wave of water crashed down on top of me, throwing me to the dirt. We saved the house, and I survived.    

Sexism, Alive and Well

Firefighting has been and, for the foreseeable future, will remain a male dominated industry. How are women treated in male dominated industries? I can safely say, like garbage. Women have the ability to out work, out hustle and out think their male counterparts, but they will still be looked at as the weaker, more emotional sex.

For three years I risked my life on the fire lines of Washington State. I raced my way through the ranks to run my own engine within two fire seasons and the thanks I got, a coup from the male firefighters who attempted to take over my engine. Why? Belatedly put by them, because I am a woman. People on the outside looking in will always think, "When you wear the uniform you aren't men or women, you're all firefighters!" It's a great concept, but an unachievable one. 

Men, in regards to very physical jobs (fire, military, police, etc.), will always see women as the weaker sex that is meant to stay home and cook dinner. A woman can prove herself over and over but won't change a man's ideas of her. In fire, men have a hero complex. My boss once told me, women are a distraction on the fire line. It will cause the death of good men one day because he is going to, naturally, protect the women first then himself. Sometimes on fires you have but a few seconds to deploy your fire shelter, you have zero time to help anyone but yourself. Women who take on these dangerous careers are mentally ready to lay down their lives, meaning they don't need protection from anyone.  

Highlands DNR engine leads, including myself, for the 2016 fire season   Image Credit: Janice Wilson

Are Leaders Helping or Hindering the Fight?

In the state of Washington, there is a new female Commissioner of Public Lands who oversees all offices for the Department of Natural Resources, from fire to forestry to managing over three million acres of state land. Hilary Franz has been commissioner since 2016. This year, one of her main topics of interest: having more women in fire. She took to Facebook to state, "What we don’t see is enough women to join this powerful [job of] firefighting; there’s no reason we can’t make this number higher. I am encouraging all women interested in protecting our communities and keeping our landscapes green to join … We are not only fighting fire but we are fighting the glass ceiling.” 

On October 11, also known as #DayOfTheGirl, Franz took to Facebook to thank women who work as firefighters for the Department of Natural Resources with a video. The video shows very few women, in nice clean yellows (the shirts wild land firefighters wear) not even working on a real fire line. Being a firefighter is all about getting down and dirty. The long standing joke among firefighters; the brighter the yellow, the more authority you have and the less you work. The women in the video also seem to lack confidence in their message. No wonder women don't want to work as firefighters. You see ads for male firefighters and it's all fire and brimstone, action and adventure. And what do women get? A half-assed attempt at a 'go women' video that falls flat on it's face. 

Why is it still an Issue?

Wild land fires are issues that will continue to plague the states. One can always count on certain states, like California, catching fire every year. Currently California is facing the Camp Fire complex fire which as of today is 151,373 acres and 70 percent contained. Due to the fires size, state and DNR officials were required to send in resources from 17 other state including Washington State, Alaska and Georgia. Out of the hundreds of firefighter deployed to the complex fire, you wonder, how many are women?  

Even when a woman decides to apply to a male dominated career, they are looked at last because of their sex. They may only be interviewed so the company can fill their 'quota'. But if they find themselves hired they are instantly faced with a multitude of obstacles. You are sexually harassed, passed over for promotions and when a woman has dominate personality  and takes control, she is called bitchy and controlling, but when a man takes over he's "just doing his job." The U.S Department of Labor reported that only four percent of firefighters are female and many of those women face issues with sexual harassment and discrimination. 

It may be 2018, but we have a long way to go before equality in the workplace can be achieved. Some men may always see women as small, defenseless mice that need a big strong hero to save them. One can only hope that soon women will tip the scales and male dominated careers will no longer exist. No woman should feel like she can't apply to physical labor jobs for the fear of sexism. Women need to band together to shatter the glass ceiling.    

Myself and another fire crew battling the Okanagan Complex fire in 2015    Image Credit: Cody Mannick