Every day, I have no idea what is going to happen to me. At any minute I could get a call or be reassigned. My life is completely not my own, and for some reason I find that very comforting. Of course, having gone to Bryn Mawr, I have to analyze this. I think what I have is kind of a modern monk's experience. Monastic life is about giving up guidance to your own life. It is about obedience, and I understand why that is spiritually fulfilling. I love my work because I do what I am told, and what I do helps my community.

And if you love being in dirt all day under perfect blue skies and watching amazing sunsets from the lingering smoke every night, it is pretty much a dream job. It is mine.

How are fires put out? Darn hard work, bulldozers, helicopters, air tankers, and truthfully, snow and rain. My role, of course, falls under the darn hard work category, although dozer operators and pilots do that, too.


Elena McFadden '95's PPE (personal protective equipment) consists of leather fire boots, Nomex pants and long-sleeve shirt, leather gloves, helmet, goggles, shroud (a Nomex bandana covering the nose, mouth and cheeks) and "web" gear (fire shelter, water bottles and a hose clamp). "Nomex is a special fire-resistant, cotton-like material that doesn't burn continuously," McFadden explains. "Most material will flame up, and the flames will burn all of the item. But Nomex will only burn through in the place directly exposed to fire."


Grass fires burn in a V pattern. Our objective is to put out both flanks of the V and "hook" the head of the fire as quickly as possible. The flanks of the V get wider and wider, so working quickly is important. Generally, there is a single line of fire at which to aim the hose. On very windy days, when a line of fire "sheets" and grows four to 12 feet deep, we hope for natural fire breaks such as creeks or roads.

For grass fires, we run with a hose in front of the engine, or we park the engine and pull the hose, fighting the fire as we go, attaching more hose when we need it. We also use backpumps, which hold five gallons of water and are worn on the back, similar to positive pressure pumps used to spray pesticides in gardens. Brooms and wide hoes called McClouds are also effective in quickly putting out a line of grass fire. Bulldozers support us by cutting wide fire breaks next to our work. And when conditions warrant, helicopters and air tankers support us with "bucket drops" of water along the fire line-the line past which the fire cannot move, because there is no fuel to keep it moving. Brush and woodland fires are more complicated, because the fuel burns longer in those areas. We remove the fuel by putting the fire out along the fire line, or by backfiring-burning fuel under controlled conditions so that when the head of the fire arrives, it has no more fuel to keep moving.

Truthfully, we do not get to fight live fire very often. Most of our work is called "mopping up," when we put out all the smoldering parts of the fire so that the wind cannot pick it up and start a new fire across our fire line. So most of what I do all day is hike around-a lot-digging up smoldering roots, cutting back bushes with a chainsaw, and otherwise grubbing up hot spots.


Elena McFadden '95 (far right) with her fellow California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighters at the Sacramento Metro Airport, August 2000. They had just returned from fighting fires in Montana and are cheering on their replacements.


One of our most important jobs is structure protection. In wildland areas people are asked to clear all vegetation from around their houses to 30 feet in all directions so that if there is a fire in the wildland around them, we can protect their home. With 30 feet clearance, we can park our engine next to a house, pull two hoses to surround the house, put out spot fires on the roof and eaves as the fire passes by us, and then go on to the next house.

The first time I did structure protection, I was just plain scared. Usually I am not scared in regular initial attack, because I have so much confidence in our captains and engineers. They are concerned with our safety and good at their jobs. We're just like foot soldiers. We follow orders; they decide where we'll go and how we'll attack the fire. In that kind of military structure, you have to have confidence in your leaders.

But the first time I was standing next to a house, staffing a hose with my full PPEs (personal protective equipment) on, knowing that a fire that had just burned 8,000 acres in the last 24 hours was about to "pass by" me, I didn't care what my captain said. I thought he was crazy. I thought I was crazy! That was the most faith I ever had to have in a captain. But as in any transformative experience, I felt I grew a lot by standing there, no matter how much fear I felt. In the end we got reassigned and held the fire at the road instead.

Another frightening incident was my first large backfiring operation. It was night and hard to see. The fire was burning up one side of a mountain ridge, and our assignment was to hike up the other side of the ridge and light fire all the way down, so that the main fire would go out when it got to the top of the ridge and ran out of fuel. Even though I was in constant radio contact, I was scared someone would light fire below us by accident, or that I would lose track of my team. I trusted my captain, and I knew he would not have taken us up there unless he thought we could do the job and do it right.

The hill we hiked was, well, quite a hill. If we had seen it in the daytime, we probably would not have tried it without ropes. We were on some pretty sketchy cliffs. On this particular assignment, one of the other firefighters fell out-he gave up and turned around because he was out of shape. Afterwards, the chief said to him, "I mean for god's sake, man, a goddamn girl made it to the top of that mountain." I admit it made me proud to hear that.

There are actually six other women firefighters and two women captains in my unit, which is, for fire service, a lot. Most of the time they are at other stations, and I am the only woman on the job. The culture is, frankly, a men's locker room. The locker room jokes were hard to get used to at first. Unfortunately, a huge part of our job is to "hurry up and wait." Conversation and the ability to amuse ourselves during long staging periods is critical to being psychologically motivated and rested to do our jobs when the time comes. Most of the time, we are trying to keep from being bored.

After getting to know the firefighters in my unit, I made the decision to put aside my beliefs about what kind of language is right or wrong or offensive. It did not seem important in light of the fact that they literally put their lives on the line for the community every single day. They know not to say anything racist or homophobic around me because I'll tell them to cut it out, that they're chicken for talking like that. If they say something sexist, I tell them to cool it if their comments are harmful, hurtful or dangerous. But most of the men I work with make an effort to treat me respectfully and like one of the guys, and that's okay with me.

For me, the riskiest aspect of the job was to try to become a firefighter. I was not an athlete. I was never in what I thought was very good shape, and I really never thought I would make it through academy. But the people were so supportive, and that support got me through. So many people thought I was in good enough shape, I guess I finally had to believe them. That has been something I have gotten out of this job over and over again: finding out that other people sometimes believe in me more than I believe in myself, and that I can rise to meet their expectations.

Now that I am a firefighter, I am rarely asked to do anything risky. Firefighters are trained to do every job we are assigned to do. It is rare that we are called upon to be brave heroes, like on TV, and most of the time we are discouraged from doing so. We are frankly reminded, "You're no good to anybody if you're dead."

Civilians are usually surprised by this. There is a lot of science to fire fighting, and many risks are calculated so that we do not have to take them. Everybody wants to go home at the end of the shift. We are there to do a job, we do what we are trained to do, and then we go home. A regular day of mobile attack or backpumping isn't risky. It's hot, it's exhausting, it's probably the most physically taxing thing you'll ever do. But everybody wants us to go home safe, so we do it safely. Our first fire order is: "Fight fire aggressively, but provide for safety first."

I am very lucky in that I look forward to almost every part of my job. I look forward to our downtime, when we have our daily routine at the station. I look forward to our fire assignments in other counties, when we get to sleep in the dirt for several nights in a row, patrolling and mopping up on a fire. I love going to sleep under the stars every night and waking up to the sunrise every morning. I love the outstanding people I work with.


Becoming
After Bryn Mawr I taught elementary school. I loved it. Unfortunately for me, in 1998, the state of California destroyed most of what I loved about teaching. Bilingual education was made illegal, and at the same time standardized testing was implemented in such a way and to such an extent that many teachers became demoralized. Teachers my age were quitting; older ones stuck with it for the retirement, or nostalgia.

In June 1999, I resigned from my school district. I was so angry about not being allowed to do what I loved-teach-that I walked away.

I needed a new future. I thought I would teach forever, and now forever had shown up about 27 years too early. In high school an assessment test concluded that I should be a park ranger, so I tried it out. I went to work for four amazing months at Arches National Park in southeastern Utah as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association. In the end, I knew I wanted to return to California, so I did. I allowed myself two months of not working to see if I could find some direction. At the end of two months, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to work outside. I wanted to get stronger. And I wanted to work on a team.

The two jobs I could think of that would give me all three were professional athlete and wildland firefighter. While I didn't consider myself qualified for either, I at least knew where to send an application for wildland firefighter. So I blanketed California, Nevada and Oregon with my resume, 25 applications in all, each one different. I applied to every national park, national forest and state forest that had any job posting related to fire service work. I got called for my first interview on March 11 and was hired two days later.

I never considered becoming a metropolitan firefighter (one that fights fires in buildings) because it didn't fit my first desire to work outdoors. The other jobs I thought of pursuing were construction worker and state park patrol ranger, but neither had the team aspect that I really wanted.

Off-season
Last spring I volunteered for the Sacramento Community Tree Foundation. We would go to schools and teach kids about what trees needed to live and grow healthy. It was hands-on, with every class digging their own hole, "tickling" the sapling roots, planting, fertilizing and staking their own tree. I got to work outside and with kids, doing important work. I couldn't have been happier. Every day I was out in the grassy field for six hours while class after class of smiling children came to work with me, excited about helping the tree to live. It almost ties fighting fire for best job experience.

This year, unfortunately, financial reality set in. (I am, after all, turning 30, like most everyone else from '95.) I had to take a "real" winter job as a teacher. But I shy away from calling myself a teacher. I am a firefighter; I teach sometimes to pay the bills. And I hope to continue taking risks and making sacrifices, and someday work outside year-round.

Hey, everybody's gotta dream, right?

cover icon Return to Winter 2002 highlights

MHK