Gender diversity on the fire line

A photographer chronicles several of the firefighters combating and cleaning up after California’s Donnell Fire.

 

It’s still unknown what sparked the Donnell Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California on Aug. 1. Since then, more than 36,000 acres have burned, and fire crews have worked relentlessly to achieve 90 percent containment as of Sept. 10. Many of the 188 personnel staffing the seven hand crews, two helicopters, five fire engines and four water tenders fighting the blaze are local women.

The U.S. Forest Service has a documented problem of accountability when it comes to a safe environment for the women who make up roughly 13 percent of its workforce. (In March, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned over claims of sexual harassment.) But women have a long history in the Forest Service, from the first all-woman wildland firefighting crew assembled in 1942 in California, to the first female smoke jumper in 1981. In August, photographer Tracy Barbutes accompanied some of the women and men fighting the Donnell Fire. Here are a few of their stories.

Cindy Petrich gives the day’s game plan to firefighters early in the morning on Aug. 16, near Dardanelle, California.
Tracy Barbutes for High Country News

Cindy Petrich — Cleveland National Forest engine captain, 120-day detail

When driving to active wildfire areas, Cindy Petrich, 46, marvels at her work: “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a movie. Is this real?” Petrich has been fighting fires since 1992.

As a child, Petrich spent much of her time outdoors. When her 10th-grade horticulture teacher introduced her to trail building and repair, Petrich saw the potential for a career. She joined the California Conservation Corps after graduation and then went on to seasonal jobs with the USFS and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

At Cal Fire, Petrich felt like men weren’t sure how to act around women on the job and in the field. Eventually, Petrich opted to leave “because of the bro thing.”

She’s seen many women come and go from firefighting careers. Those leaving typically say they need to be their family’s chief caregiver. Petrich also feels the pressure of balance, having to leave her three sons, ages 19, 12 and 10, daughter, 8, and her husband for a couple months a year. Her daughter is starting to ask more questions. Where is she going? When will she be coming home? She hopes her children will understand why she is gone and what her job entails, “but unless you’ve been on a fire, it’s hard to understand.” 

Petrich, who worked on a hotshot team in the 1990s, was recently promoted to a detail position as an engine captain. As a leader, and especially as a woman, she feels the need to prove herself wherever she goes. “You have to earn respect, no matter what,” she says.


Kali Disparte and Kira Miller take a break from working on the Donnell Fire at the Clark Fork Campground in California’s Stanislaus National Forest.
Tracy Barbutes for High Country News

Kali Disparte — Seasonal firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management, Inyo National Forest

Kali Disparte, a 24-year-old transgender man and seasonal firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management at Inyo National Forest, wants to make a career out of fighting blazes, something that wasn’t originally in his plans. 

The youngest of eight children, Disparte was born in Okinawa, Japan, into a military family. He didn’t consider a career in fire until he attended Antelope Valley College and completed Los Angeles County’s structure fire academy. Disparte admires people who are willing to teach and give back to the fire community by helping those who are trying to get into careers in firefighting.

Disparte began his female-to-male transition between his first and second years as a firefighter. “As I got older, I got stronger. The more I came out, the more I got stronger and the more people supported me.” First two of his sisters, he said, “and now my fire family.” 

Disparte said he hasn’t experienced discrimination — when on the job, his team’s goal is getting a blaze under control and each member of the team is treated equally. He also doesn’t feel uncomfortable with his transgender identity while on the job, and says that most people in the Forest Service want to help him succeed.

His friends and family support his firefighting aspirations as well. Especially his 94-year-old grandfather, a former fire chief with whom he shares fire stories.

Despite the occasional fears inherent with his career choice, Disparte takes great pride in firefighting. “After working on a fire, putting it out,” Disparte said, “driving past it and seeing what you’ve worked on is the most rewarding part of the job. It’s a feeling of accomplishment.”


Linda Winkler checks the day’s briefing notes before her crew moves onto the next Donnell Fire hot spot. Behind her, crew members Art Shaw and Joshua Krapes wait for their assignments.
Tracy Barbutes for High Country News

Linda Winkler — Angeles National Forest fire engine captain

In the early days of Angeles National Forest Fire Engine Captain Linda Winkler’s 29-year career, women took “a lot of crap” because there were so few of them on the job. Still today she feels the same pressure as Petrich, as if under a magnifying glass of scrutiny. 

With encouragement from her mother, Winkler, at age 18, took a job as a seasonal U.S. Forest Service backcountry trail crew member which she held until she “caught the fire bug” in 1996. She was accepted into the Wildland Apprenticeship Program and became a permanent wildland firefighter for the Forest Service in 2000.

Winkler tells women entering the field now not to expect crew members to befriend them; they may not necessarily offer help or advice to new recruits. She encourages women to figure things out on their own and adapt accordingly.

To change that narrative and get women more support in the field, Winkler helped host a Women In Fire Training Camp last year. During the six-day camp, trainees learned basic wildland fire skills and became familiar with the application process for seasonal positions.

Winkler said that she’s currently “just a patrol” — rather than trying for a more senior position — because that’s what works for her lifestyle. That lifestyle includes flying fixed-wing single-engine airplanes around Southern California and playing the drums in an all-female rock band.


Kira Miller mops up Donnell Fire hot spots at the Clark Fork Campground in Stanislaus National Forest.
Tracy Barbutes for High Country News

Kira Miller — Seasonal firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management, Inyo National Forest

Kira Miller, age 24, has been doing trail work around the country for the Bureau of Land Management for the past three years, most recently in California’s Stanislaus National Forest on the Donnell Fire. 

Last December, Miller attended a Women In Wildland Fire Boot Camp sponsored by the Los Padres National Forest. The boot camp is designed to introduce women and other underrepresented groups to potential wildland firefighting careers with the Forest Service, and teaches basic firefighting and leadership.

Miller recently applied for the Forest Service apprenticeship, the first step in becoming a full-time firefighter.


Diane Rendano-Cross stops at drop point 22 to discuss current Donnell Fire conditions in the early morning of Aug. 10.
Tracy Barbutes for High Country News

Diane Rendano-Cross — Assistant recreation officer for the Forest Service, Ojai Ranger District

Diane Rendano-Cross first worked on fires as an engine crew member in the 1980s. She later married another Forest Service firefighter. When her husband started working more intensively, Rendano-Cross made their two young daughters, Leilani and Chelsea, her priority. 

In 2003, Redano-Cross’s husband returned from two Southern California fires as a changed person, suffering from PTSD. After his mother passed away that same year, an addiction to alcohol emerged, resulting in a DUI and ultimately their divorce. 

In March 2013, Redano-Cross’s oldest daughter, Leilani, committed suicide at the age of 19. Leilani, who dreamed of following her mother into public service as the director of a drug and alcohol rehab center, had fought eating disorders, depression and bipolar disorder. 

At the suggestion of a co-worker, Rendano-Cross applied for the Leave Donor Program. Thousands of hours of donated leave poured in from Forest Service employees nationwide, allowing her to take seven months away from work for grief therapy.

In August, while Rendano-Cross was working at the Donnell Fire near Dardanelle, California, her younger daughter, Chelsea, called. While Chelsea was home alone, two sheriff’s representatives knocked on her door to inform her that her father, Rendano-Cross’ ex-husband, had died. 

Through both tragedies, Rendano-Cross says she felt the support of her friends and family and her colleagues at the Forest Service. She aches, though, to be away from Chelsea, especially during this second loss. “I’m living every parent’s nightmare, losing a child,” she says. “People tell me I’m strong, but I prefer the term resilient. Strong things snap and break, and I’ve been broken. I see myself as resilient, because that means to bend, to ebb and flow.”

Tracy Barbutes is a visual journalist based near Yosemite National Park.