“It was just an epic entrance into the fire world,” Gross said recently, reclining in her green Nomex pants, yellow Nomex shirt, and thick-soled leather boots in the Dixie National Forest.
Gross is one of a growing number of women wildland firefighters.
In the past, women in this male-dominated field have faced implicit bias, sexism, and powerful gatekeepers who didn’t make them welcome.
Today women still only make up 12 percent of wildland firefighters—but a number of initiatives have been created to increase the number of women in fire, foster their leadership capabilities, and improve their operational confidence in the field.
According to the National Forest Foundation, the first time women fought wildfires was around 1915, when wives of Forest Service rangers helped their husbands battle blazes in the Mendocino National Forest in California.
In 1979, a female sociologist sued the Forest Service for gender discrimination after she was turned down for a position because the hiring supervisor wanted to wait for a male candidate.
As a result, two years later, the Forest Service agreed to a consent decree, committing to giving women equal access to jobs across the agency, including in fire suppression.
Thanks in large part to women who were first hired onto Interagency Hotshot Crews in the 1970s and ’80s, today women are present in every facet of the wildland fire world.
In time, Legarza rose to one of the top jobs in the Forest Service: Director of Fire and Aviation.
She took that post after decades of leadership on the fire line as a Hotshot Superintendent, Forest Fire Management Officer, and Fire Chief on the San Bernardino National Forest.
“Things like that make you take a step back and question, Why am I doing this.
Nearly all the women at PTFC agreed that fire is more of a calling than a job.
But to Erika Davalos, one of the women at PTFC, it’s worth it.
Gross is a graduate of another initiative specifically designed to bring women into fire, the Women in Wildland Fire Bootcamp, a weeklong introduction for women completely new to the field.
There was a consensus that women bring an entirely different perspective to our profession
Gross hoisted the saw over her shoulder and strode along the road with fellow firefighters, women and men headed together for the same tasks
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