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Family tells story of early female smokejumper who died in October

by Karen Peterson, Valley Journal (Ronan, Mont.) |

When anyone told Margarita Kay Phillips (1956-2018) she couldn't do something, she would work twice as hard to prove them wrong. With that mindset, she achieved a number of amazing accomplishments in her lifetime, but she wasn’t one to brag.

In fact, she didn’t like being the center of attention at all, so her family waited until after the Pablo resident passed away to share her story.

“She was an amazing woman,” said her husband, Doug Phillips. He said his wife was one of the first female smokejumpers in Montana, and as if jumping out of planes wasn’t amazing enough, she also competed in races of up to 100 miles.

Margarita was 62 when problems stemming from ovarian cancer took her life. A few days before she died, she went out for a 14-mile hike, which was a short trip compared to the 100-mile treks she had taken in years past.

She wasn’t feeling well the next day. Her family would later discover that she had a blood clot. “It’s really common for people with cancer to get blood clots,” Doug said. She died Oct. 29.

Friends posted on social media: “If you knew Margarita then you know she was a force of nature, kind, generous, quietly fierce and an incredible endurance athlete before it was cool.”

Doug thought back to when the couple got married in 1974. He said their romance started after Margarita found out that Doug could outrun her. She loved running. And she loved competition.

She grew up in St. Ignatius, Mont. They were both young when they met. Margarita still had a year of high school remaining when they got married. She decided to get a General Education Diploma and help her new husband on his family ranch.

They had their first son Dustin in 1975. A second son, B.J., was born in 1979.

Margarita eventually went to the Salish Kootenai College and got a degree in Forestry in an effort to qualify for outdoor-based jobs. She wanted to fight fires.

She worked for the Lolo National Forest Interagency Hotshots for a few years in the mid-1980s. She was often looking for ways to move up in her career. She had her sights set on one job in particular in 1987.

“She wanted to be a smokejumper,” Doug said.

The first female smokejumper in the United States was accepted in 1981 when the profession was only about 40 years old.

The extreme physical fitness required to do the job attracted Margarita to the work. Smokejumpers have been compared to Olympic athletes. Their goal is to put out fires in the wilderness before the flames develop into a massive wildfire by digging trenches, falling trees and moving debris.

Smokejumpers carry 110-pound packs full of equipment. Margarita weighed 120 pounds. They sleep in the wilderness, often near a fire and eat condensed food packaged to fit in their packs. After jumping from a plane and pulling the cords on their parachutes, they land in rugged terrain.

Margarita thought this kind of work sounded like a dream come true.

She headed to the Missoula Smokejumpers base and asked for a job.

In “Smokejumper" Magazine, Kim Maynard, a Missoula smokejumper, remembered the day she met Margarita. Margarita said to her, “I’m 30, I have two boys, and I want to jump.”

The story continues by describing Maynard’s reaction. She looked at Margarita’s freshly ironed pink shirt, her long flowing hair, her jewelry and her manicured fingernails and thought, “Yeah, right.”

Doug said his wife didn’t know what to expect when she showed up in Missoula to take the smokejumper’s test. She was in good shape and ran all the time. But she had no idea that pull-ups were part of the fitness requirement. She failed the test.

She went home with the stamp of failure looming in her mind. At five-feet four-inches and just barely 120 pounds, they said she was too small. And she wasn’t strong enough.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, a smokejumper’s duties can be extremely arduous and hazardous. Jumpers must be in excellent physical condition to withstand a job involving prolonged periods of heat, smoke and limited supplies of food and water. All smokejumpers are required to do seven pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 25 push-ups and a one and a half mile run in less than 11 minutes.

“They made the mistake of telling her she couldn’t do it, so she wanted it even more,” Doug said. “With the pull-ups, she put weights in her shoes to get stronger.”

After training, she went back to Missoula and took the test again. In 1988, she became a smokejumper. Passing the test was just the beginning. Candidates go through a grueling training regiment. Men and women often fail.

“They told her that she wouldn’t last very long,” Doug said. “They told her that she would get busted up and quit.”

Margarita didn’t quit. She developed her skills as an explosives expert, blowing up trees and fire lines when needed, and she gained skills as an emergency medical responder.

She didn’t like telling her story as an individual, but when she was included with a group where everyone was recognized, she would share her thoughts. In a story put out by the Chicago Tribune in 1982, she described why she liked being a smokejumper and jumping out of planes.

“Every time’s a rush,” she said. “It’s the excitement, the challenge, and maybe a teaspoon of fear because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” She added: “We’re firefighters first. We are only in the air one and a half minutes.”

During the summer fire season, she was out fighting fires with her team for 21 days with two days off at a time. She slept out in the rugged terrain near the fire. She was able to call home and the conversations became longer when cell phone technology developed. She talked to her family about what she did during the day. She described the Spam dinner competition at the campsite.

“They would have Spam cook-offs to see who could make the fanciest, good to eat, nice-looking dish. She added juniper to her dish and it looked fancy, but she said it didn’t taste very good,” he said.

Her sons remember her coming home for a few days during the summer fire season. They would be excited to see her, jump into her arms for a hug and get the familiar whiff of smoke.

Dustin said his dad wasn’t a very good cook and oatmeal was his specialty. He added that his friends also had a lot of respect for his mom because she was in better shape than they were.

Margarita found the job to be exciting, but it was also dangerous. She was heartbroken when she got the phone call that her friends, fellow smokejumpers, had died in a Colorado fire. She knew her own life was at risk and worked hard to make sure she never got into the fire protection bag used as a last resort. But she did get hurt.

During one of hundreds of routine jumps, she came out of the plane and ended up hitting a tree.

“She hit hard,” Doug said. She was caught in the tree and needed to use all of her strength to get herself out of it. She ended up with a broken ankle and ribs. On another trip, she broke her little finger but didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want to be sent home.

She traveled the country with her team on fire suppression missions, including Florida, Alaska, Washington and Colorado. She was going to go to Australia, but her husband asked her not to leave.

“I hadn’t seen the color of her eyes in a long time, and the boys and I really wanted her to come home. She didn’t go that time.”

As she gained experience, she trained other smokejumpers. As a female with Mexican heritage, she liked to focus on helping women and minorities join the profession. She liked to tell people exactly what was expected of them if they wanted to become smokejumpers so they could avoid the experience she had.

Margarita continued to move up the chain of command in her profession. She wanted more than anything to be the person helping other firefighters to find their mark before they jump out of the plane. She wanted to be a spotter. She was told several times that she wasn’t good enough for the job.

“She called bull---- on what they said,” Doug said. “She said, ‘You prove to me that I’m not a safe spotter.’ They couldn’t prove it. She had to threaten to take them to court before they would finally give her the job.

She blazed the trail for a lot of women to get to do the job after her. She said she was fighting the good old boys’ syndrome and had to fight hard even when she was qualified.”

Doug recalled that his wife did have support from several co-workers, but he also said she constantly fought sexual harassment and rude comments.

“They said women couldn’t do the job, and women should be behind a desk or back home being Betty Homemaker. That was the wrong thing to say to her. It made her even more determined to keep going.”

Margarita kept going for 20 years and wouldn’t quit until she had to retire in 2008. Her family said she might be the only grandma smokejumper from Missoula to retire. She had two grandchildren.

“She never wanted to be a man,” Doug said. “She just wanted to be a woman doing a man’s job.”

After she retired, she continued to focus on physical fitness. She ran a 50-kilometer race in 2008 and took first place. She also ran 100-mile ultra marathons just to see if she could do it. “She ran all the time,” Doug said. Before she retired, she finished the Bighorn Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run in 30 hours, 30 minutes and 33 seconds in 2005.

She helped get running legend Bob Hayes of Evaro, Mont., into the sport, along with encouragement from his children. The two would run together all the time.

“She was a mover and a goer,” Doug said. “She was determined to beat cancer, and she probably would have if it weren’t for that blood clot. Because of my faith, I know I’ll see her again. Someday we will be back together, running across the mountain tops.”