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Into the Fire

Fire agencies have a burning desire to recruit females, with little luck


At work, Molly Leadbetter rappels out of helicopters. She carries a pack weighing nearly 119 pounds (around five pounds less than Molly herself). She walks into wildfires and when she gets there, the 25-year-old spends 16 hours digging trenches, clearing fuels and containing fires burning thousands of acres of Idaho wilderness. She is, by definition, a bad ass.

"It gets hot," Leadbetter said. "You're next to the fire, you're sucking in smoke, burning your eyebrows digging a hot line. Suddenly, I'm like, 'Why do my ears hurt so bad?' My earrings get really hot."

Molly and her 27-year-old sister, Kate, have worked on wildland fire crews for six and seven years, respectively. They've fought fires across the West and work a grueling schedule of 14 days on, two days off, throughout the summer.

They're used to being outnumbered by men—usually at a 10-1 ratio—and they've both been the only woman on their crews.

Molly and Kate both said they are surrounded by women who are physically strong enough to tackle wildland firefighting, yet have seen a decline in the number of women in their field. It's a problem fire agencies across the country, from wildland firefighting organizations to city fire departments, are dealing with.

"I think, initially, a lot of women are like I was: They think they're not fit enough or don't think they can do it," Molly said. "I tell every girl, 'You could do fire.'"