Whenever you hear news about wildfires blazing, you can be sure that there are hotshot crews on site or on their way to stop it. Hotshots are specially trained in wildfire suppression and for several years. It was my dream to become one.
After receiving my wilderness Type II Firefighter credentials in 2013, I was beside myself with joy at the news that I had been selected as a member of an interagency hotshot crew based in Utah. I joined as one of only two women on a 21-person crew. Despite this being my dream job and one that I worked so hard to get, sadly, I left after only one season.
When I recently read that in Virginia, Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff hanged herself, likely due to a hostile work environment, it hit close to home. Here’s my story.
The excitement and nerves I felt leading up to my start date increased hourly. Despite being very fit from recently hiking the 2,178.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail solo, I increased my weight lifting workouts, intensified my hiking with steeper, looser terrain, and I bought a sledge hammer to beat a tire (simulating a digging motion) in anticipation of the season to come. The pain and fatigue I felt was worth it. I knew it would make me better at my job and that through my job, I could help save lives, communities and vast expanses of wild places.
Unfortunately, the job was not what I hoped it would be. The work itself was much as I had imagined and trained for, but the behavior of my co-workers was not. I quickly learned that the hazing of rookies is a common practice. A male firefighter who recently had his rookie year told me that because he had been hazed, it was now his turn to haze me. Hazing lasted all season for us three “newbs.” For instance, we three were expected to rush to do the lowliest of tasks and faced verbal abuse if we were slow.
On top of that, because so many of them derided anything feminine in correlation to our work, I felt I had to prove over and over again why I, as a woman, deserved to be there. In discussing it with another firefighter, he agreed that it wasn’t fair, but he had accepted it as “just the way things are” in this male-dominated field.
As the season progressed, so did my feelings of isolation and depression. Some of my co-workers routinely made statements belittling and objectifying women in front of me. While time has erased many of the words, I haven’t forgotten how they made me feel. They further fueled my downward spiral; never have I felt so low about myself simply for being female.
I am not alone. The most recent study on this subject was conducted in 2008 and found that 85 percent of female firefighters reported being treated differently because of their gender and 30 percent reported unwanted sexual advances. After Mitendorff’s death, many women firefighters have come forward filing lawsuits and sharing similar stories of abuse.
I feared that telling management about the hazing and demeaning of women would only make my situation more difficult. We worked in backcountry for two weeks at a time and often there was no cellphone service. I felt isolated and vulnerable. Like many women in my position, I entered survival mode. Hearing about Mittendorff’s death makes me feel grateful that what I experienced did not reach the level of abuse she faced, but I can’t help but wonder if it could have if I had stayed.
Toward the end of the season, I broke my silence during a tearful phone call with my auntie. I decided not to return the following season. It hurt like hell to let that dream job go, and I tried not to think about all the time I had spent training and preparing. I knew it was an unhealthy environment for me and I needed to rediscover my worth again.
In my final days with the crew, we were given feedback forms. I decided to voice my concerns. Much to my surprise, our superintendent promptly pulled me aside and personally addressed my feedback. Later, during my exit interview with all seven of the management team, they apologized and offered words of support. But the damage was already done.
While I commend the U.S. Forest Service for making greater efforts to diversify their workforce, much more must be done to break down the gender barrier than just adding a woman or two into the mix. Eliminating hazing could be a good first step, and one that could benefit women and men, as many men surely do not enjoy being hazed either. I’d also love to see a better support system in place for female firefighters across crews and cities, one where they can easily and safely talk to management and be taken seriously. Being able to hold conversations with other women in similar situations would be powerful, too.
I hope that the feedback I gave to my crew’s management made them more willing to create a welcoming environment for future women firefighters. Fighting fires is dangerous enough without having to worry about what a co-worker may do.