Fired Up 

A visit to Idaho's Panhandle and ruminating on women firefighters

I recently spent the 45-minute flight from Boise to Spokane, Wash., staring out the window of a Southwest 737 into a brown haze. I think I saw the ground maybe three times—including at takeoff and landing.

They say the Northwest is on fire, and they're not kidding. Even after the hour-plus drive from Spokane to the far north of the Idaho Panhandle, the sun was an angry red dot in the sky. It stayed that way for all three days I was there, choking the locals who are used to clean mountain air and night skies exploding with stars. I hadn't heard the word "apocalyptic" so many times since I sat through a lecture from an evangelical stump-preacher on the eve of Y2K.

In conditions like these, the normally friendly looking forests of northern Idaho feel like time bombs, and I can promise I lit no campfires during my stay.

There were a lot of wildland firefighters in town when I was visiting the area, and no shortage of toasts being drunk to their bravery. I was one of the toasters, and if I had a vote, this year's Time magazine Person of the Year would be the hot shot.

Time changed its annual honorific from "Man of the Year" to "Person of the Year" in 1999, and when it comes to firefighters, the gender-neutral term is especially appropriate.

In this week's feature article, by Boise Weekly staff writer Jessica Murri, we take a look at the women who suit up and march into fires across the region. Specifically, why there aren't more of them, either in the backcountry or working for the Boise Fire Department.

While it is a priority for Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan to recruit more women onto his force, Murri found he faces an uphill struggle—not because of physical barriers, but a cultural mindset in which women simply don't consider firefighting as a career choice.

Judging by recent fire seasons, we're going to need all the help we can get. Unfortunately, fire seems to a growth industry.

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