Women Smokejumpers: Fighting Fires, Stereotypes

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2003

National Geographic Ultimate Explorer: Women Smokejumpers premieres in the United States on MSNBC, Sunday, August 10, 8 p.m. ET/PT.

"Jumping into a fire is, of course, very appealing. It would be to anybody, right?" That's how Jody Stone explains her career choice. She is one of the elite in the corps of wildfire fighters: a smokejumper.

Smokejumpers are the troubleshooters of wildfire-fighting efforts. There are roughly 370 wildfires currently burning in the United States. Smokejumpers are dispatched to the fires that are too remote, the terrain too rugged, or the heat and flames too intense to reach otherwise.

The work is back-breaking and dangerous and the hours are exhausting. You have to love it to do it, and smokejumpers are nothing if not passionate about their work.

"Discovering fire fighting for me was like discovering the job I had been meant to do but didn't know it existed," said smokejumper Lori Messenger. She'll describe a fire as "cooking pretty good," or "messy" and speak of flaming fronts and walls of fire as matter-of-factly as most of us speak of a harrowing day at the office when the computers went down.

Women in a Man's World

The first smokejumper dropped into a fire in northern Idaho in 1940 as something of an experiment. The elite corps remained a men-only unit until 1981 when Deanne Shulman became the first woman smokejumper.

Breaking into the field was not easy. Shulman faced a great deal of resistance to the idea of a woman smokejumper. In 1979, she washed out of rookie training. Although she passed the extremely rigorous fitness test, at 125 pounds (57 kilograms) she didn't fall within the height and weight requirements of the time (130 to 190 pounds/59 to 86 kilograms and 5 feet 5 inches to 6 feet 3 inches/165 to 191 centimeters). It took a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint to open the ranks to women.

Weight requirements today are 120 to 200 pounds (54 to 91 kilograms), although the change was not due to Shulman's challenge.

Rather, the weight range helps firefighters jump safely with standard-issue parachutes, said Edmund Ward, base manager of the Missoula, Montana, smokejumper station. Too heavy, and the rate of descent is so fast that the skydiver lands too hard, risking serious injury. If a firefighter is too light, the heavy winds that can sometimes accompany fires will blow a jumper past the intended landing site.

Women smokejumpers remain a minority. Among the nation's more than 400 smokejumpers, only 27 are female. But today they're considered just one of the "bros," said Ward. There are 73 smokejumpers based in Missoula. About ten are women. Ward isn't sure of the exact count, although he offers to look it up.

"I don't think of them that way [as females]," said Ward. "We don't answer every request. Sometimes it's just not safe. But if the decision to send a team is made, they're all smokejumpers and assignments are made by the jump list. At the beginning of the season we pull names from a hat to determine who's going to be with who. After that, it's just a question of rotation. We don't think 'this fire's too tough' [when making assignments] or anything like that. That's all baloney."

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