Being a woman fire fighter in a wildland crew was unheard of, until Linda Strader fought for her place to become one. The story of her determination and can-do attitude has now been published in her inspiring memoir – Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love and Courage.
How did you get into fire fighting?
I think I knew early on I wanted an unconventional job. Right out of high school, with no college plans and no direction, I took on jobs typical for a teen; food service, secretarial. But I only lasted two days as a waitress. I fell asleep at the desk of the job where I was hired to answer the phone. (In my defense – it never rang.) I dabbled in making silver and turquoise jewellery, but it required expensive investments, and I didn’t have the money. Because I lived in the small town of Prescott, Arizona, options ran out – fast.
To make a long story short, I eventually landed a timekeeper job with the U.S. Forest Service at a ranger station high in the mountains outside of Tucson. It was there I met an elite fire fighting crew: the Catalina Hotshots. They helped me make the decision that I wanted to fight forest fires. I applied, and in the spring of 1976, the Forest Service hired me on a fire suppression crew in southern Arizona.
What is a working day like?
Almost every day was an adventure. Although we were hired for fire suppression, our supervisor kept us busy with other projects while waiting for a fire call. We maintained the hiking trails on our district, built fence to keep cattle in check, flew in helicopters to helispots (remote landing pods) for maintenance tasks, and took care of the recreational facilities (with outhouse cleaning at the bottom of the list for fun.) We also thinned dangerous overgrowth and set prescribed burns to reduce fire danger. Station and vehicle maintenance proved never-ending, but taught me skills that benefit me to this day.
Did you have to prove your position as a female fire fighter?
It never crossed my mind that being the only woman there would be a problem. Aside from a couple of guys who had no qualms about letting me know that I didn’t belong there, the others seemed to accept my presence. Even so, it didn’t take me long to realize I would have to work twice as hard as everyone else to prove I could handle the work.
For sure the work was physically demanding, Aches and pains were a badge of honor to me. When firefighting, I faced some terrifying moments, and thought I could die. I endured sixteen hour shifts, little sleep, bad food…all part of the job. Some of the guys gave a me a hard time, but I dismissed them, knowing I pulled my own weight. However, after a few summers on crew, I ran into a man in a management position who refused to hire me on his crew because I was a woman. His comment made me furious; never one to make waves, I felt compelled to do something about it. I filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. However, nothing happened to him. I didn’t pursue the complaint any further, realizing I couldn’t win that particular battle.
After such a battle what made you stay on as a fire fighter?
Because the harder men made my job, the more I wanted it. But perhaps the most important reason was that this job made me feel important; it gave me a purpose in life. I’ve never forgotten when my tanker crew and I went to a major fire near Flagstaff, Arizona, which threatened homes. After working a double shift, we needed gas to continue patrolling. A young couple approached me while I was at my truck. Obviously distraught, and with tears in their eyes, they thanked me for protecting their home. It was one of my proudest moments.
Have you any tips for women looking to go into the fire service?
Be prepared to stand your ground. While women have made inroads in upper management within the firefighting world, jobs on crews are still a challenge. I had a young woman write me recently to say how she was being denied the right to train as a sawyer (a chainsaw expert), simply because she was female.
It angers and frustrates me that in 40 years not much has changed for women on fire crews. It’s no wonder that women hold less than 10% of all fire fighting jobs.
If this is something a woman wants, she needs to step up! Not let anyone stop her from reaching her goal.
How did you come to write your memoir about your fire fighting days?
I never intended to write a book. After suffering a series of losses in a relatively short amount of time (my marriage, my job, my mom), I returned to some of the best times of my life because the future looked so bleak.
My book started out as a way to document my days as a firefighter, the exciting times and adventures. It started out at 90 pages. Six months later, I added 400 more. Then the thought of publishing intrigued me. Despite being told memoirs were next to impossible to have published traditionally, after many edits, rewrites, setbacks, rants, moments of wanting to quit, moments of knowing I would never quit…a publisher offered me a book deal. All told, it took me four years to reach my goal, and my memoir will soon be out in the world.
The moral of the story? If you really want something, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.