It’s no secret that a lot of the outdoor industry has historically been a male dominated field, the U.S. Forest Service fire crews included. And while women have been fighting fires for longer than most people realize (since 1815 to be exact, but these women were not recognized until the 1920s), it wasn’t until the early 1970s that women began making their breakthrough into the business of wildland firefighting.
Enter Linda Strader: one of the first women to be hired by the U.S. Forest in the mid 1970s.
When asked why drew her to work on a fire crew, and how she got her break as a wildland firefighter, Strader shared this story with us:
I’m often asked if I always wanted to be a firefighter ever since I was a kid. Maybe that would make sense, but it never, ever crossed my mind. In fact, I never gave wildfires any thought until my family moved to Prescott, Arizona, from New York in 1972. When we drove through a charred forest one Sunday afternoon, I remember feeling sad about the destruction, but didn’t think about a job that entailed putting them out.
The year: 1976. Early March. About ten p.m. I walked in the door to find my mom waiting up for me, reading the paper. She let it drop to her lap. “How was the trip?”
“Fun!” I tossed my purse on the chair, removed my coat, and headed toward the closet.
“Oh, the Forest Service called while you were gone,” she said, lifting the paper back up to read.
I froze. My heart leapt into my throat. Every ounce of my soul danced. Please let this be a job offer. “They did? What’d they say?”
The newspaper again dropped to her lap. “It was the Nogales Ranger District. They said they would call back tomorrow to discuss a job offer.”
I’d been looking for work since I graduated from Prescott High School three years earlier, but in this small Arizona town, jobs were scarce, especially for a young woman who did not want to work in an office typing letters or answering phones, or schlepping food trays in a diner. What did I want? I didn’t know. But I did love the outdoors, and spent a considerable amount of time hiking among the pines of the Prescott National Forest. However, my job search had proved fruitless. Reluctantly, in ’74 I tried Tucson. There, an acquaintance connected me with the Fire Control Officer on Mt. Lemmon, who offered me a fire timekeeper position at Palisades Ranger Station. Okay, it was an office job, but it was an office job in a ranger station, in the middle of the Coronado National Forest, deep in ponderosa pines. I worked two summers up there, where I met the Catalina Hot Shots. They introduced me to the world of firefighting. I decided to give it a shot. A very big deal for a twenty-year-old me.
Because I now had a taste of working in a national forest, the “forest” aspect was quite important to me. I loved having nature right outside the back door. But, were there pine trees on the Nogales District? I had no clue. When the Nogales District official called the next day, it’s embarrassing to admit that I boldly quizzed him about whether there were any pine trees. Would I have turned the job down if there weren’t any? I’m not sure, but fortunately, the man assured me that pines did indeed grow there.
What I didn’t know at the time was how determined the Forest Service had been in keeping their agency male-dominated. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Act had passed in 1972, the agency had resisted compliance, especially toward the hiring of women, until they were forced to in 1976—the year I applied.
I’ve never forgotten my first day at work on the fire crew. After introductions, my supervisor inspected my palm for calluses, and squeezed my upper arm for strength. At the time, I figured he was teasing me, and just smiled. Maybe you couldn’t call me Ms. Muscle-builder, but I wasn’t afraid of hard work, and, although I wasn’t positive I could handle the job (self-doubts and all of that), I knew I would do my best.
And there I was—the only female on a suppression crew of ten. I don’t think I even noticed. Unfazed, my determination to excel at this job grew with each challenge. I fought small fires, medium fires, up to huge, monster fires. I maintained trails and helispots, built fences. Whenever a guy gave me a hard time, either because he considered me as someone belonging barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, grabbing my tool out of my hand, or because I’d said ‘no’ when propositioned after we’d just met…I laughed off the silly men with silly attitudes. I’ve got this.
What I learned is that when you love what you do, it’s not called ‘work’. And, unfortunately, what I learned while researching for my memoir about my times as a firefighter, is that the struggle for women on fire crews is still that—a struggle—to be accepted, respected, and treated fairly. When will changes happen? That’s hard to predict. I can only trust that eventually things will change. And for the women like me who loved (love) this career, this change can’t come too soon.
If you would like to learn more about my Arizona to Alaska challenges and adventures, you might be interested in my book, Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love, and Courage, available on Amazon.com, and in select Barnes and Noble stores as well as their website.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Linda!