news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

Women Celebrate 20 Years of Smokejumping

by Tara Rothwell (Redmond '92) |

Everyone was invited! If you didn't make it, you missed one hell of a good time. On December 7th and 8th the women of smokejumping, their friends and families came together in Sun Valley, Idaho for their 20th reunion. The 80 people present included past and present smokejumpers, their friends and families, representatives from the Women in the Fire Service organization and other wildland firefighters.

We also gathered to honor Deanne Shulman (McCall '81), the first woman smokejumper. We came together to celebrate who we are. It was a unique and empowering experience to come together as women normally spread thin among bases and states, to celebrate our connections, and to realize that we are not alone.

Be Outrageous
Lori Messenger (Missoula '00) started off the event in her usual eloquent and succinct presentation style. She covered her life experiences that led her to firefighting and then smokejumping. She reminded us how important it is that women are doing this job. "It matters that we have done this. It matters that we are pushing ourselves, going after the lives we want." She spoke of the contribution and role models of her parents, especially her mother, who scoffed at the Daisy Duke standard of women of her day, choosing strength and muscle instead. (At 60, her mother has qualified for the triathlon World Championships in Cancun next year).

Lori reminded us that, as women smokejumpers past and present, we have much to be proud of. She gave a brief history of women in firefighting and smokejumping, starting with women recruited for fighting forest fires during WWII.

Lori encouraged the audience "to be our most outrageous, honest, silly and serious selves." She urged us to become visible, to share ourselves and to make a difference. We must ask each other questions, listen to the stories, and feel safe in sharing our experiences, good and bad. Then, we should take our stories to our communities, share them with the young girls and hope for a moment they forget about the color of their nail polish, the shape of their thighs. If they can disregard what their magazines and TV programs encourage them to obsess about, they can look within and become all they want to be.

Support from the Men
We were privileged to hear from a few men who have been very outspoken champions of women in firefighting and smokejumping -- Ed Ward (Missoula '80), Steve Dickenson (LaGrande '78) and Mike Fitzpatrick (Redmond '78). They also came to honor Deanne and her accomplishments. Former smokejumpers Ed Ward and Steve Dickenson spoke of their early acquaintance with Deanne and of jumping fires together. Steve was the lucky old-timer who happened to be Deanne's jump partner on her first booster trip to Region 6. Needless to say, he was cautious about jumping with any rookie, but found himself quickly impressed with the rookie woman.

Mike Fitzpatrick insisted that he was not one of the Alaska smokejumpers who lost their lunch at the news that Deanne had completed rookie training and was (Grangeville '85) making her debut on the jumplist. But he admitted he was equally as disheartened and upset as the rest of the Alaska bros. "How tough could my job really be if a woman could do it?" he recalled lamenting. As we all know, Mike has seen the light and grown into one of the most ardent supporters of women in smokejumping. Mike concluded by noting the remarkable contributions and changes he has seen in the smokejumper organization since Deanne's pioneering moment.

Smokejumping and Parenting
Leslie Anderson (Missoula '84) spoke about strength in diversity and reminisced about her early days and her desire to become a firefighter. The unenthusiastic negativism she met had the "unintended effect of solidifying my determination and heading me down a road I am essentially still on." Leslie went on to work on a district crew, helitack crew and hotshot crew, and jumped for six seasons. She did all this while completing a bachelor's degree in Forestry at U.C. Berkeley and a master's in Forestry with an emphasis in fire ecology from the University of Montana.

Her life changed, she said, the day a co-worker brought his 2-year-old daughter to work. "Something about her sweet, curious face struck some evolutionary hormonal chord with me, and my brain said very clearly, 'I want one of those.'" Now she is the mother of two sons, Adam and Dan. Their births threw some real obstacles in her career path in fire management, however.

"I felt guilty for not accepting fire assignments, but I felt worse when I took them. No one can warn you adequately how much you will adore your children or how leaving them behind will feel like you are tearing off your right arm." Leslie knew that, to get her all-important red card skills, she would have to leave her family for weeks. Putting family first, she looked for a more compatible job. She landed a job at MTDC as an equipment specialist, heading the fire shelter project before her eldest child started kindergarten. She had to leave her love of fire ecology, but has now been able to make her family a priority without sacrificing her strong work ethic.

Leslie had some profound comments about mothers as smokejumpers, with broad implications to both potential parents and management. "I think that an unfortunate but necessary part of the struggle for women's professional equality had been the unspoken requirement that we be mute about our roles as mothers while at work," she concluded. "We almost had to pretend we weren't mothers. I hope now we are to the point where we can speak our voices as mothers and openly and vocally cherish our children. I loved smokejumping -- the adventure, the challenge and the camaraderie -- but even smokejumping pales in comparison to the joy of holding my brand-new sons and of raising them to be good men."

Meeting the WASPs
During WWII, when good men were hard to come by, 1074 women quit their jobs to become pilots for the war. Kelly Esterbrook (Redmond '86) introduced us to the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Unfortunately, none were able to gather with us, but we became acquainted with them via film documentary. A sense of connectedness could not be denied, as we all shared their stubbornness, tenacity and passion in doing what they loved to do. They were forgotten after WWII, but were true war heroines and pioneering examples for adventurous women of the future.

Wild Nights and Tequila
Another pioneering woman, Kim Maynard (Missoula '82), who rookied shortly after Deanne, jumped for eight years and became the first woman squad leader, said, "It's about being who you are -- isn't it?" She spoke of a time about two years in when she doubted that jumping really was for her. She recalled listening to her guts and realizing that everything about jumping was truly her: "the jumps, being in the woods, chewing tobacco, all night digs, wild nights and tequila." She noted that the thread through her life has been all about adventure -- learning and doing something that matters.

Kim is now Dr. Kim Maynard with a Ph.D. in International Affairs and is an assistant professor at George Washington University. She currently consults on post-conflict reintegration for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID) and the United States Institute of Peace. She has worked with international government, non-governmental organizations and private foundations on disaster and humanitarian issues for 23 years. In her work, she has met the women of many of the war-torn countries of our generation and has found another element in what counts: "Courage, as well as knowing and then acting."

She concluded with a quote from the book, When I am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple (Sandra Haldeman Martz, editor): "You have earned the right to sing and dance anywhere."

Guest of Honor: Breaking Barriers
Our guest of honor and recognition also spoke to the crowd. In quiet humility, Deanne Shulman spoke of her experiences as the first woman smokejumper. "The challenges I considered the most difficult to overcome in becoming a smokejumper were the same ones all of you faced: looking out the door before that first parachute jump with eyes as big as saucers and grueling packouts. These are the great equalizers in smokejumping, as they challenge both genders and level the playing field."

Deanne was not only the first woman smokejumper, but also the first in a number of positions with Forest Service fire management. She has been quietly breaking barriers and setting standards of the highest level for women in fire through her entire career. All the while she has remained quiet and reticent, but hard-working and ever-enduring.

A few months before the reunion, Deanne began receiving e-mails from her second-grade classmates, who were organizing a reunion and had found her via a web search that ended at the jumplist on the NSA site. E-mails that circulated amongst her classmates read like this:

"I honestly can't imagine how you did it. Perhaps I'm wrong, or being silly, but my awe of your courage is quite real. You may want to keep a low profile, but in my book you're right up there with the women pioneers I mention below. Those smokejumpers are as brave as it gets, and to me the first woman smokejumper is somewhere above Amelia Earhart -- or at least at the same level. This is really big stuff, kind of like Sally Ride. Actually, I think it would be much more difficult than Sally Ride, for that matter; there was a lot of pressure for Sally Ride, but also a lot of supervision and a relatively high profile, well-educated, well-bred, gentlemanly bunch of fellow astronauts. Smokejumpers I've met, on the other hand, are about as rude as they come, sort of like lumberjacks with a death wish and they probably hated the idea of a woman joining them. I'll bet it crossed many of their minds that it would be so easy to cut a shroud or riser and she'd be out of their hair, with few or no questions asked. Like I said, she is a hero in my book..."

In her soft, humble way, Deanne denies that strength of character, determination, bravery and courage are the attributes that allowed her to succeed. She feels that her main driving force has been sheer stubbornness. Her father imprinted his values of independence, self-sufficiency and fighting for what was desired.

Deanne went on to describe herself as a "fire crone." That is fitting, since a woman in the crone phase is considered to be more authentic, creative, outrageous, powerful, funny, healing and profound than at any other time in her life.

Deanne concluded with some words of wisdom for the group: "As women in a male-dominated profession, we tend to subdue and mute our voices and truths. But we in this room need not wait until we are crones to speak our clear vision and voice. We are women and we all have experience as smokejumpers. We have unique stories to tell and perspectives to share, so let's tell them and let's be heard. As surely as my parents left their imprints on my life, let us boldly leave our indelible footprints in the workplace and the rest of the world. Fifty years from now, let's be sure our children and grandchildren know our stories and our truths."

More Honors
That night we re-gathered for dinner, drinking dancing and fun. Richard "Deak" Dollard (Missoula '98) presented Deanne Shulman with a beautiful sketch, for her accomplishments as a smokejumper. Margarita Phillips (Missoula '88) was honored for all her hard work in making this event happen, for her work in the Washington office and for all her contributions to the smokejumper program. Leslie Anderson received an award from the Region 1 smokejumpers for her contributions to the R1 smokejumper safety program.

We were honored to have Olympic Biathlete Lyle Nelson, Nordic Venue head at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, speak to us about following dreams and believing (not new concepts for this crowd).

He likened Margarita Phillips to Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked for the rights of the oppressed and for better working conditions for women. Eleanor changed the role of the first lady with her outspokenness, by addressing issues and general political topics. She led men and women into greater understanding of social issues and international issues. She was not a quiet First Lady, but said what she thought and changed things that needed to be changed. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." For those of you who know Margarita, I think you can easily hear her uttering similar words.

Earlier in the day, Kim Maynard had reflected on the day she first met Margarita. She said, "I'm 30, I have two boys and I want to jump." Kim tells of looking at her in her freshly-ironed pink shirt, her long flowing hair, her jewelry and her manicured fingernails, and thinking "yeah, right." Of course, we all know Margarita trained, busted butt and became a smokejumper.

Lyle went on to compare Kim Maynard to Isadora Duncan, who was a renegade ballet dancer in the early 1900s. She is said to have been gifted with poetic vision and dance talent. She rejected the rigidity of ballet and went on to develop modern dance. A free spirit, she is described as looking to the root of dance for her inspiration.

Then he likened Deanne Shulman to Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama and triggered a black boycott of the city's bus system that ultimately led to laws that ended segregation. Rosa Parks said, "My only concern was to get home after a hard day's work." I think had Deanne been asked, she might have said, "My only concern was to come to the end of the packout with 115 pounds on my back, take care of my blisters and get on the jumplist."

The night progressed with lots of good food and spirits, dancing and the big flip, which was won by an ecstatic member of the National Geographic film crew (who did the good deed of turning part of the money over to the event and part to the bar). A silent auction was also held with donated items. The money raised was used to help cover the cost of the event.

Winding Down

Saturday morning the women smokejumpers met at the Sun Valley Nordic Center and spent the day visiting and skiing. There was lots of snow and it was a cold, clear, beautiful day.

Later that evening we all met once again. We discussed issues of importance to us as women smokejumpers -- family, pregnancy, periwinkle, how things have and have not changed since Deanne's debut on the jumplist, just to name a few topics. We also had more awards.

Kasey Rose (Winthrop '89) received the Tony Broderick Award for her inspiration to women smokejumpers, for her leadership, and for just being who she is. She attained the highest GS rating (GS-9) among the women jumpers (way to go, girl!). Robyn Embry (Grangeville '85) was honored for longest-jumping woman smokejumper. Kelly Esterbrook, Patty Johnson (Redmond '97), Irene Saphra (Redmond '86) and Lori Messenger were also acknowledged for making the reunion happen.

The next reunion is likely to be in five years. You will all be invited, and we hope to see you there.