While visiting her parents on a rare trip out of her beloved woods, Diana Clarke met with me. Pacing the room, ironing clothes and laying out a blouse pattern, she seemed to have far too much energy for mere talking.
We lived in the country when I was growing up, so I played outside a lot. I had one girl friend, but she lived a ways away, and her mother wouldn’t let her play with me, so I played with my brothers and boys from the neighborhood. At the same time I was fantasizing about becoming a nun. That’s what every Catholic girl wanted to be. That’s the best thing you could do—become a nun or a missionary. Later I grew away from religion.
I spent a long time, most of my college years, becoming an artist. In college I studied graphic arts. At home I became a person who made things.
My work history has been rather varied. I’ve had about twenty-five jobs—a lab assistant, switchboard operator, graphic artist, and seamstress. I’ve worked in nursing homes, been a governess, waitress, truck driver, bartender, and cook. During college I found out about fire fighting. It contained all the qualities I wanted and it offered a chance to live in a remote area. It was good pay, and it was a non-traditional job which would allow me to live and work in the mountains. It sounded so exciting! It was exactly what I wanted to do, and I haven’t changed my mind yet. I’ve been doing it since seventy-seven.
To get hired you must pass a physical fitness test, and since I had not been leading an active life it took me a few days to pass. It’s called a step test. You have to step up and down on a step of approximately eighteen inches for five minutes, and then if your heart rate doesn’t return to normal within fifteen seconds you don’t pass. Some people don’t get hired because they don’t pass the step test. The accuracy of the test is a controversial issue, but I am basically in favor of it; I don’t want heart attack material out there with me on a wildfire.
They gave us a week-long training program, the field work being mostly on the job. They taught us a little bit about weather behavior, radio communications, how to use a compass and read a map, how to use, sharpen, and carry hand tools—a shovel, hazel hoe, and pulaski, a type of axe. Those are the basic tools that a fire fighter uses. Then there is the chainsaw. I was apprehensive using the chainsaw, mostly about cutting off a foot or making a fool out of myself trying to learn how to use it. And I didn’t know if I was strong enough. Yes, learning to run a chainsaw was probably the hardest thing that I had to do as far as training was concerned. Actually, they’re very easy to run, though. I have my own chainsaw now and I get all my own firewood. I learned to fall snags from my men friends in the town I live in. I start looking for firewood after work on summer days and bring it home a load at a time. I need about five loads to get through winter comfortably.
When we completed training, we separated into various crews and went out and stacked sticks, which is what you do while waiting for a fire call when you’re on a fire crew in the summer. On the crew that I work on, you pile logging slash. What you basically do is treat the slash the loggers leave behind. You either broadcast burn or hand pile it, and cover it with plastic and burn it when the snow flies.
Last year we stacked sticks all summer and went on only three fires. Each year it’s different. When St. Helen erupted we didn’t go anywhere at all. I much prefer fighting fires to stacking sticks; every fire fighter feels the same way. You’d spend all your time digging hot line if you could; the rest of the time you just wait for the big one. Digging hot line is the initial attack on the fire. You’re digging a trench one to eight feet wide, depending on where you are. In California they have to be very wide. If you’re in the woods on the west side in the Pacific Northwest, they are narrower and deeper because of rotten wood called duff. It all depends on what fuel type and terrain you are working with.
Fire fighting is very structured. There’s an organization to fire fighting and that’s what my job is about now. I’m a crew boss and train crews in digging lines, brushing out, and handline construction principles. The number of people working under me always varies, but it’s usually around seven to ten, unless I’m on a big fire; then there’s up to nineteen.
Anybody who said they weren’t ever afraid of fires would be lying. However, I like being right there next to the fire. The only thing that concerns me is someone who doesn’t have information on what the fire weather is. You can observe a certain amount about a fire, but you just don’t know what the weather is going to be like. When you know the expected fire weather, you can base your strategy on that information. That’s the thing that frightens me—being around people that don’t know what’s going on. Wildfire is dangerous, and I want everybody to know what’s going on in those situations. I don’t want to die in a fire. And I don’t want anybody that works with me to die or get hurt. That’s my job, taking care of my crew. I make sure they have food, rest, enough sleep, and they get their time recorded accurately.
It sounds dangerous, but after awhile you learn how to read what a fire’s going to do and you always plan an escape route and safety zone. That’s a bare spot where there’s very little fuel, or it’s a place you can run back into that’s already burned or a rock slide or a lake. It’s a place you can go to if the fire closes in and you’re not going to be in a fuel-concentrated area. If you are forced to retreat from the fire, you reanalyze the situation and start once more to contain, then control it.
Sometimes we do backburning, which is when you light off an area before the fire gets to it so when it reaches your burnout, it doesn’t have fuel concentration. You control what it does and it’s actually good strategy, if you have people who know what they’re doing. One time in California some people got burned while backburning, and the fire boss forty miles away called up and said, “No more backburning,” which meant we were in a very bad area without an escape. There was no place to go. We had a catline to lay in. A catline is a very wide area that’s made by a bulldozer, a cat. It gives you some protection. My crew leader kept saying, “Am I nervous? Do I look nervous? Can you tell I’m nervous?” I didn’t know he was nervous until he started asking me that. I was his assistant and knew things were very tense, but he kept us all very calm and finally we backburned anyways. It was either that or get burned over.
I’ve had some burns, but they’ve all been due to my own foolishness, because I didn’t wear my gloves and picked up burning things. If you get burned or cut when you’re not wearing your safety gear, you’re responsible for that yourself. You have the gear and have been instructed in how to use it. If you don’t, that’s your problem, your prerogative. You certainly can’t collect money because you hurt yourself when you’ve been instructed in the proper procedure. You’ve got gloves, hard hat, fire-retardant clothing, fire shelter, safety goggles, and ear plugs. You have to buy your own boots. They have to be eight inches high with Vibram soles.
It’s required that you wear the ear and eye protection. However, I don’t like to wear ear plugs because, if someone’s shouting, it lessens my chance of being able to hear them. When I’m wearing eye protection, the goggles that we wear have a little lip right below the eye so you can’t look down to your legs; also they tend to fog up. I wear sunglasses, which are acceptable. When I first started out, I wouldn’t wear gloves. I like to get my hands callused. But there are times when your work is slowed down a great deal if you don’t wear gloves. Then I require the crew to wear gloves.
When you get to a fire, there’s certain rules you have to follow. You always wear a hard hat no matter where you are. You have to wear fire-retardant clothing. You have to have your gloves with you, because if you are in a fire situation where you have to get into a fire shelter, which is an aluminum tent, you only have a couple seconds. You pop it out of this little bag that you wear on your waist at all times during fires, and you unfold it and snap it open and fall down with it and get air in it. When the fire spreads, it’ll protect you a certain degree more than just being there by yourself, but they’re not foolproof. You have to have your gloves so that you can hold down the edges of the shelter. That way the fire just goes around you. I was on a fire where a man died because he wasn’t able to hold down the edge of his shelter, and another person, who did have gloves, made it through.
I’ve never been burned over, but I know people who have been and they were uncomfortable, but safe. It keeps the exceptional amount of heat away from you. I don’t have the exact information on how high the heat can get before you’re well done, but the shelters protect you from the smoke, which is what would kill you first in a fire. You’d suffocate. You are uncomfortable in a shelter, but you can get through.
The story is, though, that you should never have been in a situation where you would have to use your shelter, and if you are required to use your shelter, chances are you will lose your job because you put that crew in a dangerous situation. You will be thoroughly investigated. Why didn’t you know where the fire was going to be? Why didn’t you have communications? So that’s the last thing in the world you want to do, if you want to keep your job and your respect.
You’re only supposed to work sixteen-hour shifts now. They feel it is unsafe to work over sixteen hours. I agree. However, it’s sort of an ideal. You’re only supposed to be in the smoke ten minutes and then you’re required to be out ten minutes, which is a big joke. That is impossible. Usually you’re in for five hours and out for ten minutes. If you’re in a smoke situation, that’s the way it’s going to be. You’re where the danger is. That’s why we’re there. I’d say the average shift on a fire is twelve to eighteen hours. If your relief doesn’t show up, your shift is twenty-five hours. I have put in a fifty-two-hour shift. They wanted us to work another shift, and I got angry. I told the sector boss that there was no way that we could work another shift as we hadn’t had any food for two days and people were very tired and punchy. People were making stupid decisions because they were so tired. We were finally relieved. They do the best they can. However, if you’re in a very tense spot you’re going to have to go with the punches and remember it’s in your job description.
When I first started, the guys on the crew felt uncomfortable because they weren’t used to a woman and thought they would have to stop swearing and roughhousing. That lasted about five minutes—until I started swearing. I think they were afraid they would have to pull my weight. And I will say now there are women whose weight they do have to pull, and that annoys the hell out of me. However, there are men who can’t make it as fire fighters either. If they’re on my crew, I won’t put up with it.
The whole thing about fire fighting is there’s a lot of time to lay around, but there’s other times when you get very hungry, very hot, thirsty, very tired, and very cold and very uncomfortable. You have to remember this is the job you signed up for and be tough about it—it takes nerve to do this job—and not complain about it and wish you were home and dry and clean.
My first crew boss was not used to working with women. He did not like the idea, but he did an about-face and changed his opinion when he saw I was completely capable of doing the job. He had just come from an environment where women were not on crews. It didn’t matter why they weren’t. That is the basic attitude of the men on the interregional crews, which are the big hot-shot crews. But the thing that is funny is that when they are forced to hire women, some of them want to do all the things for them that they were afraid they were going to have to do. They want to carry your hand tool or they take a little extra care of you. It’s difficult for both sides. You have to say, “Thank you, I appreciate it, but I can do it for myself.” My crew boss and crew did not resent my being a woman. I think they were kind of proud of it.
Washington, Oregon, and California are good for women fire fighters. You go to Idaho, you’re going to have it much harder, from what I experienced in nineteen seventy-nine. First time I was on a fire in Idaho I was with my crew boss. I was his assistant at that time. When we were walking down the line, I heard the bosses saying, “You’ve got a gal on the crew. How do the guys like working with her? Is that kind of a problem?”
And the crew boss says, “Well, she’s my assistant and there’s never been any problem at all.” The guys could not believe that not only was I a woman on the crew, but I was the assistant!
When I’m on a fire and the men come up to me and want to know where my boss is, I say, “You’re looking at her.” They do kind of a double take and are thrown off and say, “Right, no big deal,” but they watch me constantly to see if I screw up. “Oh, no! It’s a woman and she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Fortunately, after about one day or a couple hours of just being around me they know I do know what I am doing and they lighten up a lot. I’ll be glad when it’s just accepted for women supervisors on the fire line.
You work wherever there’s a fire. I’m based in Washington state, have been for six years. But when there’s a fire, they’ll send you, if needed; it doesn’t matter where it is. I’ve been sent to Idaho, California, and Oregon, and not been sent to Arizona and New Mexico, just by pure chance. Crews go there every summer. We get crews up in Washington from Florida, the Carolinas, the New England states, and the Midwest. We can go anywhere in the United States. It’s pretty funny when you get a crew in the Idaho wilderness area from Florida, because they’ve never seen a mountain and they’re expected to scurry up this mountain and it’s more than some of them can bear. It’s simply like stage fright and they can’t do it. I’ve seen crews really terrified. I don’t know what our crew would be like down there in the swamps with the alligators and snakes and bugs, but it’s exciting. It’s great to travel all over.
People think it’s great that I have this job. They also think I’m nuts. A lot depends on who they are. A businessperson, who lives in the city, can’t believe it at all. A logger, who works in the woods, can’t believe it either. Loggers are very old-fashioned; if they see me run a chainsaw, cut down a tree, or dig handline, they become competitive. From what I’ve seen, loggers don’t like women working in the woods. I think it’s just fine to show people you can do the job. I have no qualms about picking up a chainsaw and dropping a tree to show someone I am capable of doing my job. I think people should be required to do that more often, because if you can’t do it, what are you doing there? If you are going to play with the boys, you are going to have to be tested right along with the boys. I can handle the competition.
Becoming as good or better than some men can lead to some resentment. I would say the most difficult part of my job was putting up with the men who initially trained me for the position I’m now in. It was one thing when I was a grunt on the job and I was doing what they asked me to do. It was another thing when I came into a supervisory position, required to make decisions for myself, and no longer had to ask them what was going on. They resented that a whole lot. Trying to deal with men’s fragile egos is something I have a very difficult time with. But I guess you have to deal with men as they exist and I’m not going to win any rounds by being impatient, so I try to be calm, stay cool about it.
When I’m in a fire camp I look around and try to find a woman who’s forty years old or thirty-five or fifty, like all the men I see. I want to see a woman who’s walking around not just in a fire camp, but on the fire line. I’ve never seen her. And that really bothers me because I want to see her. I realize the role model has to be myself. I’m going to be the role model for other people, and that’s one of the reasons why, even when my job was less than I wanted, I decided to stick it out. I want to be that woman on the fire line.
I would climb the ladder in fire management if it weren’t for being an artist. A full-time life fighting fire leaves no time for creating, so I only work part time in the woods and devote my winters to creating objects that express my feeling about life.