When Bequi Livingston reported to her job as a firefighter more than 30 years ago on the Lincoln National Forest, she was greeted by a disappointed office manager. In the late 1970s, U.S. Forest Service applications for firefighters did not ask for one’s gender because it was assumed that only men would apply. So, Livingston was offered an office position, to which she adamantly replied: “No. You’re not putting me in the office.” Over the next 18 years, Livingston led an adventurous and, occasionally, life-threatening career as one of wildland firefighting’s pioneer women. Today, she is retired from firefighting, but she continues to support the Forest Service’s firefighting team as a regional fire operations health and safety specialist at the Southwestern Region in Albuquerque, N.M.
How did you get interested in firefighting?
I was always a tomboy, and I hung out more often with the guys. When I was in high school, I read a little about firefighting and it intrigued me. I was drawn to firefighting because of its physical nature and the adrenaline. I began talking about it at school and an associate principal tried everything he could do to talk me out of it. During a study period, he even gave me a book on the tragedies of firefighting. That fueled me even more, and I’m only 4 feet 9 inches tall.
You went to college studying exercise and health. How did you veer back toward firefighting?
I went to college on two athletic scholarships: gymnastics and track (I was a long jumper and a sprinter). During my freshman year, the local fire department was starting to recruit women. They used us, track athletes, as guinea pigs when they were developing their physical fitness tests for women. At the time, my love was in health, athletics and fitness, and my boyfriend was studying forestry and he was a seasonal wildland firefighter. Being a firefighter in the woods and being physical – it doesn’t get any better!
In the summer of 1979, I read an article in the local newspaper asking for applicants to join the Young Adult Conservation Corps’ fire crew on theSmokey Bear Ranger District. I thought, heck, why not? I applied, and I was accepted. When I showed up at the ranger district, though, the other guys kept giving me weird looks. When I introduced myself, the office manager lady stopped me in my tracks. She thought I was a boy because of how I spell my name, and she offered me a position in the office. I said no and demanded no other way.
I was able to stay and I had an awesome supervisor who believed in me. The next year, I started on the Young Adult Conservation Corps’ crew for six months and then converted into a seasonal firefighter the next spring. My boss believed in my friend, another female firefighter, and me so much that he gave us our own fire engine. She was also petite at 5 feet 2 inches tall, and he called the fire engine the “Gnome Mobile.” It was awesome.
You were one of the first women to join the Smokey Bear Hotshot Crew?
Yes. A hotshot crew is one of the most elite wildland fire crews like the U.S. Army Rangers. In 1988, a supervisor who knew me very well called me and told me he needed to recruit more women. He asked me, “Would you be on the hotshot crew? And if you know of other women, I need you guys on the hotshot crew.” My good friend, Cheryl, and I joined the crew.
How much gear do you carry on a typical fire mission?
I usually carried a minimum of 25 pounds including my fireline pack, which is like your overnight suitcase. It contains food, water, clothing, and everything to sustain you. I would also carry a tool, such as a chainsaw, for example, which could weigh up to 40 to 45 pounds. The wildland firefighting boots also were really heavy because they were very sturdy and designed to be about eight inches high with a heavy duty sole. If it rained during a fire, really thick mud could cake them. I donated them to a wildland firefighter museum in New Mexico.
What situations made your adrenaline pump the fastest?
Just being on the hotshot crew made my adrenaline pump hard because you can always end up in places nobody else goes. You’re always the ones to go in as others are coming out.
One particular time that stands out is the Yellowstone Fire of 1988. We knew that we were being put into a volatile situation. The good thing is, we were fully prepared for it, but still got trapped in a meadow surrounded by fire. The fire came after us and we ran as fast as we could to a safety zone and once we got there, I collapsed. The rest of my crew ended up being trapped for three days in a huge, open, dried meadow. My crew and I were actually featured in a centerfold in the November 1988 issue of National Geographic.
I imagine there were some moments when you felt fear during a fire.
I was really scared during the Yellowstone Fire. Another time was when I was on a crew battling a fire in California in the southern mountains. It was very, very dry. My crew and I were in a parking lot but the wind picked up and encroached in our area so we took out our fire shelters as a precaution. A fire shelter is part of our standard equipment and it is the last line of defense. If for some reason you end up in a predicament you can’t get out, you deploy the fire shelter, which looks like an aluminum tent. Embers were flying about because of the howling wind. Because I’m so small, it took every ounce of my strength to dig my fingers in the gravel and hold the fire shelter down. It was really scary because it felt like I had no control at all.
What was your proudest moment during your 18-year career as a firefighter?
I have two. For the first few years I was constantly challenged due to my small size but I always knew I could do everything. In the early ‘80s, I was on a helitack crew, which usually lands near a fire at an established helispot, or hovers over remote areas for specialized crews to rappel down. We went to a fire in a remote wilderness area in New Mexico. The hotshot crew flew in after us. After they joined us, one guy on the hotshot crew went back to the helicopter to retrieve more gear. We waited and waited. He never showed up. He didn’t have a radio and we couldn’t find him. We were able to get the helicopter back to look for him. We found him two ridges over because he went left instead of right. The helicopter guided him back but he was so freaked out and was in poor physical shape when we left the fire, someone had to carry his backpack. I carried it in addition to mine, which itself weighed 50 pounds. That really helped my credibility even more.
My other proud moment is when I received the Lead by Example award in 2008. It’s a leadership award named after Paul Gleason, the premier leader in wildland fire. That was the absolute highlight of my career and it was presented to me in front of 300 firefighters.
If you weren’t in firefighting, what would you do, and during what time period would you want to live?
Without a doubt, I’d do it all over again.
I’d also probably want to live during the pioneer days. People ate better; they lived off the land; everyone was nicer, and there was no hustle and bustle. During the pioneer time, you really had to fend for yourself.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.