A hot welcome on the fire line

  • Risa Lange-Navarro

    Mark Matthews

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Fighting fires, and indignities.

History does not record the name of the first woman who got a paycheck for fighting a forest fire. Supposedly, she signed on with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska in 1971. Today 30 to 40 percent of forest firefighters are women and some Native American fire crews manage to be entirely manless. Risa Lange-Navarro, 36, fire management officer at the Ninemile Ranger Station in Montana's Lolo National Forest, says that establishing rights on the fire line has not been easy:

"In 1981, after four years of working on initial attack, I was given a chance to break in with the Big Horn interagency Hotshot crew ... I was ecstatic. I've been fascinated with fire since I was eight years old, and this is all I've ever wanted to do in my life.

"I caught up with the Hotshots on the Hell's Canyon fire near the Snake River in Idaho ... Tony (one of the crew), when he saw me, he took off his tin hard hat, threw it against a rock and said, "No __-ing women on our crew."

"A number of other folks wouldn't speak to me or acknowledge my presence ... One fellow warned me to stay away from Tony, but the next morning the squad boss assigned us to work together.

"I immediately grabbed a bladder bag and started down the hill. I kept working all day ... Tony kept getting nailed by water drops from the helicopters, and I laughed ... By the end of the day I guess I'd proved myself, because Tony began to puppydog me everywhere I went. After the season was over, we started dating.

"But the next year, the harassment got worse and I let it affect my work ... Somebody tacked up a bunch of Playboy pin-ups on the barracks' wall. And it seemed that if I asked questions, my questions were dismissed. Or my judgment was questioned. But if some guy asked the same thing, he was listened to.

"If I made suggestions to do things a certain way, I was told I was too bossy. I always felt as if I were under a magnifying glass - and still do ... Things have slowly changed ... (Still) I sometimes see people get angry that women or minorities are given a chance to work. There's an angry group of people out there who don't want to see that happen ... In some cases the harassment isn't punished because a man's family would be hurt if he were fired.

"Tony and I were married in 1984. We're separated about four months out of the year, but we're always talking over the phone about the fires we've been on.

"He turned out to be the best friend I have."