Women Smokejumpers: Fighting Fires, Stereotypes

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Years ago hearing of fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles fighting a fire together was not unusual. Now, the ground has shifted. Fire fighting can be truly a family affair. "It's been a huge change," said Ward, "and it's great to see."

Lori Messenger and her family are a case in point. She met her brother's girlfriend, smokejumper Casey Rose, in 1992 on a family backpacking trip. "In 2000, my brother and I went through smokejumper rookie training together. The next year my husband went through rookie training. And this year I have a niece fighting fire on a hot shot crew," Messenger said.

Rose has risen through the ranks, and when she jumps out of a plane now, she's in charge of the crew.

Athletes in Firesuits

Fire does not respect gender, and neither do the trainers at rookie training camps. Physical fitness is the key criterion for making it as a smokejumper and can be the difference between life and death out in the middle of a fire. When smokejumpers are dropped into a fire they carry their equipment and enough food and water to remain self-sustaining for two days. The women carry packs weighing the same as those of the men, and the training program is exactly the same for both. Many wannabes of both genders don't make it through the first "Hell week" of rookie training.

"After training, some of the top young guys, who are really super athletes, come out of training saying 'they're [the women] our equals.' I've seen a lot of guys go into training with one attitude and come out with another," said Ward.

Some fires are exceptionally difficult to stop, Ward said. Smokejumpers combat high winds, steep terrain, heavy fuel loads, and drought conditions. But a smokejumper is a smokejumper without regard to gender.

"They're [the women] completely the same," said Ward. "They're tough. One of the bros, part of a big family."

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