Those of us who spend a lot of time in nature with (or without) our RVs, owe a great deal to those brave people who protect us from wildfires. The story below, from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is part of a Women’s History Month series. It profiles the BLM’s 1971 all-women wildland firefighting crew.
In 1971, Caroline “Cara” Peters, a 20-year-old woman from Fairbanks, Alaska, sought work as a wildland firefighter with the BLM. She was fired after just four hours on the job.
Cara first went to the press to make her case known to the public, then contacted a lawyer, and finally made a direct appeal to the BLM. Because of growing fire pressures at the time, women had been filling positions such as working in dispatch and packing parachutes. However, Cara was told that she couldn’t be a forest firefighter because it was not reasonable to expect the bureau to provide separate sleeping accommodations and bathroom facilities for men and women on the fire lines. Eventually, however, Cara was told that if she could assemble 12 suitable candidates, half of a normal crew, they would begin a pilot program to test whether women had the necessary strength and endurance. She returned with 23 women.
After completing their training, Cara’s team joined other crews fighting the Wickersham Dome fire near Fairbanks, making BLM history. Crew Chief Dan Rodey, as quoted in a July 7, 1971, story about the crew published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, confirmed that they passed their test with flying colors.
“The women competed successfully with the men and in fact were superior in many respects,” he said. “As far as their physical capabilities, all were capable of handling the job, and did.”
Cara’s crew is part of a larger history of women firefighters. This history includes the Alaska Native women who, working on behalf of the BLM, fought fires in their villages, but it goes back much further. Molly Williams, an enslaved African American woman, fought fires in New York City in the 1800s, and many women worked as firefighters during World War I and II because of staffing shortages.
Time and time again, women have proven themselves more than capable of holding their own on fire crews. Yet 50 years after Cara and her team demonstrated their competence, only 12 percent of regularly employed wildland firefighters in the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service are women.
Thankfully, the disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed. For example, in 2017, the BLM partnered with the Montana Conservation Corps to launch the Women’s Fire Crew program. Through this partnership, women interested in wildland firefighting and conservation can gain the knowledge and training necessary to become competitive candidates for permanent positions. The program also helps women with the application process itself.
Great acknowledgement of the women firefighters Chuck. Seems an appropriate choice for RVtravel.
My only comment/question is that your statistic of only 12% of the firefighters being women, 50 years later… . Do you have any data on what the percentage if applicants are women? Does it correlate to the 12% employment rate? Serious question. I would hate to think it is otherwise and I would doubt it is.
My sincere thanks to all of these women (and men) for such a courageous choice for life’s path.