‘Be A Part Of Something Bigger’: Women in Wildfire

She started fighting fires right out of high school. Digging line, packing a 40-pound bag of water over rough terrain, sometimes working all day and night for Jennifer Bammert, it was about giving the fight all you got.

“All the women here can do the job,” Bammert told the Ellensburg Daily Record in 1994. “I think if you do your best and try hard … you’ll be recognized.”

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Jennifer Bammert out in the field, talking to reporters. Image: Ellensburg Daily News

DNR promoted Bammert to crew supervisor, where she acted as incident commander, instructing firefighters and making decisions on suppression.

In her 14th season, during a large fire response, she directed 30 firefighters and was the only woman. All while keeping a baby-sitter on call for her son.

For her then fellow part-time firefighters at DNR like Laurie Cox and Vicki Christiansen it’s a similar story. They quickly gained respect for their grit on the fireline and love of protecting our forests.

“After my first year of firefighting and being with 19 other guys, I was hooked,” Cox said. “There wasn’t a lot of women in the agency at the time. I paved the way myself.

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Firefighter Laurie Cox getting ready to work on the fire line.

Cox went on to be a forester, who now oversees the Family Forest Fish Passage Program, and she’s an organizer of the largest wildland fire training program in the state. This is now Bammert’s 39th fire season. She is still with DNR working hard, trying her best and newly promoted to Fire Suppression Program Manager. Christiansen served as Washington State Forester for years before becoming the U.S. Forest Service Chief.

These are just a few of the amazing women literally blazing trails for the last 40 years to make a clearer path for the next generation of firefighters.

‘Women are absolutely critical on the fire line’

As the second woman elected Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz strongly believes in further expanding the diversity of DNR’s wildfire team, the largest firefighting team in the state.

“Women are absolutely critical on the fire line for lots of reasons,” Franz said.

Not only for their leadership skills, but for their fearlessness, their courage, and their context of compassion and empathy, which are all critical qualities that we need in our firefighters. We need these women not only out on the fire line and in the community, but also back in our communication centers running logistics.”

In the last year, more women applied to be a DNR wildland firefighter than in 2018, but women still only make up 14 percent of DNR’s wildland fire team. Franz recently talked with women currently serving on the fire line to hear how we can make our firefighting space more welcoming and inclusive.

‘It’s really empowering’

DNR firefighter Celeste Winther and Franz discussed the multitude of jobs that come with wildland fire, and that people should know that you don’t have to hold an actual tool to be a firefighter.

“My first summer on fire, I was six months pregnant,” Winther said. “I was working on an incident management team (doing logistics work), and you’re still putting in the effort. My mom was worried, but I told her, ‘ I’m never going to be surrounded by more first aid personnel.’”

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Celeste Winther stands next to an engine, talking with DNR about her fire experience.

Hannah Blackstock shared that she was a little intimidated to apply for a firefighter position, but last year she found herself out on the fireline in White Pass riding in an ATV up a ski slope to set up a radio repeater for emergency communications. The views at the top were unreal, an experience you only get when working in wildfire.

It’s an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. When you see all the disasters on the news and you just want to help, this is a way you can help,” Blackstock said. “You learn so many life skills. It’s really empowering.”

Apply for our wildfire team here.