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Women Smokejumpers

by Charley Palmer (MSO '95) |

They stand out, not due to their strength in numbers, but rather, just the opposite, because of their rarity within the smokejumper group as a whole. In a profession that generates much public interest, their presence seems to intrique the casual observer even more.

Visiting film crews and writers, ubiquitous observers at most refresher trainings, descend upon them like magpies on fresh roadkill. Tourists at the base simply stare and trade whispers with their traveling companions. Few in number, women smokejumpers have always commanded this sort of attention .

In the storied history of smokejumping, with names like Rufus Robinson, Earl Cooley, Frank Derry and Bob Johnson, another name, Shulman, must be clearly added to the list. While the first three can be considered pioneers for their early work with the parachute, and Johnson considered as a pioneer in smokejumper aviation, so too can Shulman be regarded as an "early" pioneer for groundbreaking efforts.

In 1981, training at McCall, Idaho, Deanne Shulman became the first female smokejumper, ending what for forty-two years had been an exclusively all male fraternity. The next year, 1982, Kim Maynard, Wendy Kam and Marti Billingsley successfully completed Missoula's rookie smokejumper training, thus becoming Region 1's first female jumpers.

The road to earning a set of smokejumper wings has never been an easy one. For these first women, when not lugging around Smitty bags that held roughly their own weight inside, they were contending with the mixed feelings held by some regarding their entry into the smokejumper community. But, in true smokejumper fashion, they perservered, and in so doing helped clear the fireline for future women jumpers.

Today, roughly 5 per cent, or about 20, of the 400+ smokejumpers located throughout the West and Northwest are women. Missoula's current share is five. The veteran amongst them is Margarita Philips, a squad leader in her 11th season. Sarah Doehring, an eighth year jumper, gained her experience in the Sula District of the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula and with the Bitterroot hotshots before coming to the jumpers.

Shelly Dunlap, in her fourth year, completed rookie training at the age of 45. (Four years ago., your editor watched Shelly carry 110 pounds three miles in less than 90 minutes., the maximum time allowed for that test.)
Jeanine Faulkner and Cindy Wallace are both rookies this year at the smokejumper base located west of Missoula-referred to locally as the Aerial Fire Depot.

When asked what it feels like to be one of the few women amongst a large group of men, both Philips and Doehring confided that they do not really pay the discrepancy much attention.

Perhaps there is a lesson in that for the rest of us.