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Taking the Heat: A Woman on Fire

Ellita Willis
U.S. Forest Service
March 23, 2016 at 2:15pm

An illustrated graphic highlighting women in fire

No doubt many of the names of women firefighters in the 19th and early 20th centuries have simply been lost to the historical bliss of public records. One woman, who will not be forgotten, shares her path towards an exhilarating career as a fire ecologist.

An early account of women employed as forest-fire lookouts comes from California’s Klamath National Forest.  In 1913, the woman that open the doors for hundreds to follow was the brave and courageous Hallie M. Daggett, the first Forest Service female lookout.

It’s no secret that many employees of that era, both men and women, of the Forest Service had little faith in a woman’s ability to withstand the loneliness of the forest or the wrath of devastating storms and catastrophic wildfires. Not to mention the physical endurance required to carry 50 pounds on your back, hike cross-country, ward off insects and other pests, and not bathe for days.

Since Daggett’s humble beginnings, women are now serving in high-impact jobs like hand crews, hot shots crews and smokejumpers.

A photo of Sara Billings wearing her Forest Service uniform
Sara Billings wearing her Forest Service uniform. (Photo credit: Forest Service.)
Meet Sara Billings

In the words of songstress Alicia Keys, “this girl is on fire…”!  Of course, not literally. But Sara does not back down from blazing wildfires. Sara professes, “Once I had a taste of the fire culture, I couldn’t walk away from it.”

A quote, by Ferdinand Foch, epitomizes her spirit: “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.”

Sara was born and raised in southwest New Mexico with the Gila National Forest as a backdrop. Today, as a fire ecologist, she has a real passion for prescribed fire. Sara explains, “As land managers, we’ve altered the historic fire regime (how often and intensely fires burn), and now we have better science to help us understand the importance of fire on so many different landscapes.”

Sara’s induction into the Forest Service began as a member of a timber crew, which opened the door for future fire assignments. She describes her most memorable experience as a wildland firefighter serving on a hotshot crew during an active fire season. Hotshots meet stringent qualifications and work in some of the roughest and most remote terrain in the nation. They are highly mobile and trained to be self-sufficient with their own vehicles, gear, and specialized firefighting tools. Their experience and training qualifies them to conduct complex firing operations.

Upon her arrival to the crew she just happened to replace another woman who had lacked the physical stamina to keep up with other crew members. Needless to say, the ‘heat was on’ and the stakes were even higher. 

A photo of Sara Billings digging hand line for fire suppression
Sara Billings digging hand line for fire suppression activities for the Salt Creek Fire on the Shasta Trinity National Forest. (Photo credit: Nicole Herrera, former Forest Service employee.)
“This particular assignment made me question if I should continue to pursue a career in fire,” said Sara. Eventually she shook off her fears and ultimately surpassed crew members’ expectations. She left that assignment feeling like she earned her spot.

She realizes that combating wildfires does take courage and the enormous responsibility of ensuring crew members are safe. She subscribes to well-known quote by hockey player Mike Misser, “Bravery is not the absence of fear, but the action in the face of fear.” 

Sara’s advice to the next generation of women firefighters is to first earn your spot on the crew—even if you have to work twice as hard. Secondly, be prepared to perform the same duties as a 6’ man, and lastly, don’t let other people’s fears hold you back from pursuing your dream job.

If you are interested in pursuing firefighter positions, start applying in January. Forest Service job are posted at www.usajobs.gov

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