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Into the Fire

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

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The Leadbetter sisters grew up in a family of fire. Both of their parents fought wildland fires and at age 19, Kate continued the tradition. She was a slight 120 pounds and an athlete in high school. She had done some trail crew work but nothing like the physical endurance fighting fire requires.

Kate's first fire flared up in Utah and moved fast.

"I jumped out of the truck, and I had this big heavy pack on, and I almost collapsed," she said. "We call it 'yard sale-ing,' when your stuff is flying everywhere, and you're trying to pick it up ... and you're trying to do your job, and you've forgotten your tool. That's when I realized I needed to change my training regimen to be more than running."

Molly fought her first fire two years after Kate's.

"Kate told me for, like, three years that I wasn't physically fit enough to fight fire," Molly said. "Then I was looking for a job, having no idea what to do and finally my mom was like, 'Molly, you can do fire. Don't listen to Kate; you'll be fine.'"

When 25-year-old Molly Leadbetter goes to work, she repels out of helicopters. - COURTESY OF MOLLY LEADBETTER
  • Courtesy of Molly Leadbetter
  • When 25-year-old Molly Leadbetter goes to work, she repels out of helicopters.

Today, Molly works for the Payette National Forest based out of New Meadows. Her heli-attack crew travels all around the West and she works alongside two other women. Kate, in her first summer away from fires in seven years, is working in Boise as an arborist. The sisters work six months a year and devote their off-time to staying in shape.

"Especially for women, you really have to train because you don't want to be the slowest person on the crew," said Kate, who has worked for various hot shot crews in Alaska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. In the off-season, she exercised two hours per day, six days per week. Her workout included cardio, weights, circuit training and long runs. Even on vacations to Mexico and Cuba, Kate did her daily sit-ups and push-ups.

It paid off when she hiked the long, steep, shadeless mountains of the Salmon-Challis National Forest clearing brush to slow forest fires.

"I would never admit that something was hard because I was on a hot shot crew," Kate said.

Wildland firefighting is a lifestyle as much as a job, and it comes with added pressures for women, which includes living with as many as 25 men for an entire summer. Everyone is tired and no one has taken a shower in weeks. There's not much to do around the camps except sleep and talk.

"Everything is very out in the open," Kate said. "You dig a latrine and go to the bathroom in the same place. Everyone's just wildly dirty. It doesn't bother me."

While the living conditions can be grubby and the talk can be less than polite—"Think of the most disgusting thing you've ever heard a guy say, times 14—and 24/7," Molly said—the camaraderie is often as fierce as the fires.

"I think the more miserable fires, the better it bonds you," Kate said. "There's something really gratifying about the physical work because these days, there's so many office jobs and not so many opportunities to be out in the field, working with the land. Out there, you're doing something and actually seeing the product of your work."