Forget I’m A Lady- Part 1

Forget I'm A Lady- Part 1

lifeinthewildlands

By Katie Glick, former US Forest Service firefighter

It was the summer of 2018 and I had just landed my first federal fire job on the Plumas National Forest. My station was beautiful, set along the shores of a lake, with two engines and their respective crews. I was the only female. I had come from the world of small city firefighting and my “different-ness” hung in the air on my first day.

The world of structure firefighting had come from was very different from the world I was entering. For one thing the Forest Service was much more casual in a lot of ways. Lots of them kept their duty shirt un-tucked and their boots were always dirty. That was a badge of honor I would soon find out, but where I had come from if your boots weren’t shined or your gang line on your pants wasn’t perfectly straight the punishment was sit ups or running the tower in full gear. I was used to standing when my supervisor came in a room and not doing anything unless I was directly instructed to do so by said supervisor. I had learned to fight fire from former military firefighters and that was the culture that was instilled in me.

On the second day I was sitting on the picnic table talking to our “greenest” or most inexperienced firefighter when the division chief came to introduce himself. I immediately flew off the picnic table and checked my gang line out of instinct and habit. The guys looked at me like I was off my rocker.

I didn’t mind being the only female, but it was glaringly obvious that I was whenever I walked into an area where the guys were joking around. My presence immediately triggered silence. I realized they were afraid to joke around with me for fear of offending me. If only they knew what I was really like! Earlier that year the Forest Service had been called to the national spotlight so everyone was on edge and much more careful with what was said.

Gradually I earned their trust as we spent more time together and they gradually opened up. They were like onions, and I had to peel them back one eye stinging layer at a time. The more I joked around with them and made them laugh the easier the transition became.

I wasn’t the fastest, nor the strongest, and I had never expected myself to be. Certain things did not come easy to me, like climbing over logs. I would inevitably get stuck. I couldn’t reach the top shelves on the engine, nor could I close the compartment doors without jumping. I couldn’t open the hood of the engine without standing on my tippy toes and gripping with all my might. I couldn’t get up the hills as quick as they could. When we played volleyball I nearly always missed, and balls frequently soared over my reach. They called it being “Half a Glick too short.”

What I lacked I made up for with a willingness to try new things, experience, and book smarts. The Forest Service did things differently than I was used to. I was at the bottom of the food chain, and I hadn’t earned my belt buckle yet.

Finally we got sent to our first real fire, deep along the mighty Salmon River in the Klamath National Forest. We worked long into the night and when morning broke I saw my first view of the Marble Mountain Wilderness and craggy peaks unlike anything I had ever seen before. It took my breath away and I had to stop and stare. This is why we work in the wildlands.

We stayed on that fire for about ten days. I did things I never thought I could do like scaling rock, going straight up hillsides so steep you would think they had been carved with an axe. The five of us dodged burning snags that threatened to crush us. We found glow in the dark scorpions that had somehow survived the fire. We laughed when our captain ate food that was too spicy for him. We slept under the stars and rose with the sun. We spent every waking moment together and slept in a circle near the engine, never a moment apart from the crew.

I had started to notice a shift in the guys one day when we were having lunch, all leaned up against half burnt trees. Their charred bark felt like a sponge and was surprisingly comfortable. I was staring at the Madrones, a beautiful red barked twisted tree that reminded me of home, when a contract crew came down the line. We moved our feet to make way for them and I made eye contact with one of their diggers. He kept smiling at me and it made me blush and giggle. I found it flattering in a way, knowing that at that moment I was beyond the point of being filthy.

“What’s so funny, Katie?” my captain barked with a sly look.

I waited for the contract crew to be out of earshot. “Oh, that guy was kind of flirting with me,” I said then returned to my prized pickle I had traded gummy bears for.

“What!” shouted our senior firefighter. “Where is he? He can’t do that to my sister!”

I looked up in shock as all of them tensed up like bulldogs ready for a fight. I may not have been totally accepted yet, but I was accepted into the brotherhood. I knew they had my back.