In 1976, a year out of high school, Linda Strader took a job with a wildland fire-fighting crew for the U.S. Forest Service in the rugged mountains of southern Arizona. Young, naive, and a little boy-crazy, Strader, one of the first women hired as a wildland fire-fighter, thrives doing the hard physical work of maintaining trails and the work station where the crew lives while they wait for their first fire.
Then comes the first fire, and she falls hard for the adrenaline rush of battling flames and the sense of purpose that comes with fire-fighting:
With flames a mere foot away, I removed fuel from the fire's path, down to bare mineral soil, our fire line. Soon my arm muscles burned from swinging the ax at small trees, my back pinched from leaning over to scrape pine needles and the duff underneath them with the hoe. Intense heat from the fire and exertion made me thirsty. A drink of water would be good right about now.
Except that Strader and her fellow crew member had just lost their fire packs when the flames jumped the line and burned up their canteens, headlamps, and personal items, including her favorite Levi jacket. Undaunted, Strader continues scraping fire line, until the Catalina Hotshots, a crew Strader had been a timekeeping clerk for the summer before, arrive to relieve them.
"Hey, Linda," one said, smiling. "I heard you made it to a fire crew."
My grin expanded. "Oh, yeah I did." Too bad we couldn't talk. I was dying to tell them all about new job, but we had work to do. We had to get this fire under control.
Strader worked hard, proved herself equal to the guys, and thought she was in. But over that summer and the next several that she worked on fire crews for the Forest Service and then the Bureau of Land Management, aiming to rise from the seasonal level to a year-round job, she learned how wrong she was.
Some of the guys accepted her, but others were outright hostile, making ugly comments, harassing her by sabotaging her assignments or being physically or sexually abusive. Some of the harassment she could laugh off or defend herself from, some came behind her back in ways that torpedoed her career. Still, Strader tried to find a way in. And when she ultimately couldn't and was married to one of the guys on her original crew, she struggled with finding her place in a culture that didn't want her. In the end, she did find her place, but not until her marriage had ended and in the ashes, she discovered a new sense of purpose.
Strader's story is an unsung part of the #MeToo movement, and also personally familiar—I was also hired by the Forest Service in the '70s, and I struggled through similar kinds of harassment and the resultant self-doubt. I found myself nodding and sympathizing as I read, and I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of working fires, building trail, and finding her way as a woman in what is tragically still a man's world.
What I missed in this well-written book was more reflection. This is a tale of action—of flames and smoke, of brutal heat and sweat, of anger and fear and love. Until the second half of the book, reflection is simply not part of the story. I hoped for more insight into Strader's background and how it shaped the girl she was, and what she learned from her time in the wild, her attempts to "belong" to the macho culture of wildland firefighting, and from the death of her marriage.
Still, Strader's story is a good read, a compelling look at one woman's passion for the exhilarating and dangerous work of fighting wildfires and protecting our public lands.
Linda Strader is a landscape architect in southern Arizona, the very area where she became one of the first women on a Forest Service fire crew in 1976. Summers of Fire is a memoir based on her experiences not only working on fire crews, but how she had to find her courage and resilience after losing her way. She has written web articles on her expertise in landscaping with desert plants, and had an excerpt of Summers of Fire published in the magazine Wildfire Today.
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