As early as 1973, female hotshots were fighting fires in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
I went down a research rabbit hole last weekend! I was participating in the NYCMidnight Short Story Contest and was assigned the genre Historical Fiction, and my character had to be a crewman. I didn’t feel like writing about a ship’s crew, so instead I decided to write a historical fiction piece about a crew of hotshot firefighters!
According to the US Forest Service, hotshot crews were first established in the late 1940s and were called “hotshot” crews because they worked on the hottest part of wildfires. Hotshots have to meet very high fitness standards in order to meet the physical and safety standards of their jobs.
Using my public library’s subscription to MyHeritage Library Edition, I stumbled across an article called “Welcome Home Hotshot Crews” from the Beaver County Times from 29 August 1973. The article interviews several of the 80 hotshot firefighters who returned to Pennsylvania after being deployed to fight fires out west, particularly in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Hotshots in a 1973 Beaver County Times article
A hint of East Coast vs. West Coast gatekeeping drama among hotshots:
Maurice “Duke” Hobaugh claimed, “We opened up a lot of eyes out West. The idea of eastern crews fighting western-type fires was an oddball thing for westerners to see and they were skeptical.”“Welcome Home Hotshot Crews”; Beaver County Times; 29 August 1973
Even though the Pennsylvanians were paid by the US Forest service and the Pennsylvania Division of Forest Fire Protection helped them return to their jobs, one hotshot who was gone for two weeks said he was worried he might have lost his job.
Tom Bast […] and his crew […] talked of “walking through ashes halfway up your leg, like snow,” and seeing carcasses of elk “so burned that the antlers turned to ashes when you touched them.”“Welcome Home Hotshot Crews”; Beaver County Times; 29 August 1973
One crewman “suffered shock” from bee stings (alas, there was no further details on the circumstances or type of bee/wasp).
Temperature changes outside the fire area were also a problem, as they went from “a high of 78 degrees in daytime and down to 28 at night.”
Another challenge? The US Forest Service.
“And while the Forest Service provided welcome catered food, they also provided sleeping bags made from recycled paper for some crews in the mountainous terrain.”“Welcome Home Hotshot Crews”; Beaver County Times; 29 August 1973
Recycled PAPER SLEEPING BAGS provided to FIREFIGHTERS fighting WILDFIRES. Obviously, they must have slept in safe places and not caught fire if they lived to tell about it, but… that’s some irony right there.
And now, the most interesting part of the article (at least, to me):
Of top interest for the Jim Thorpe crew were the first female hotshot crews any had seen.“Welcome Home Hotshot Crews”; Beaver County Times; 29 August 1973
“There must have been 80 to 100 women from California, Oregon and Washington on the Wallowa-Whitman Fire,” Dayle Smith said. “And they worked alongside us and did the same things we did — used shovels, ‘Pulaskis’ and carried ‘bladder bags’ (five-gallon rubber water tanks strapped to the back) like any of the men. The only I didn’t seem them use was a chain saw.”
“They used the same language, too,” one added.
A first encounter with female hotshot crews? This piqued my interest, so I dug around a bit more.
I stumbled across this eBay listing confirming that, as of 24 August 1973, at least one woman helped fight a forest fire in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Unfortunately, the listing was apparently quite old, and so I couldn’t see the auction record. I even tried seeing if someone had included it in the Internet Archive, but no luck.
First Female Hotshots
I started trying to identify more records regarding female hotshot crews fighting the Wallowa-Whitman fire of 1973, with no success.
I did, however, find some other reading about the early female hotshots:
“The first all-woman forest firefighting crew in California was assembled in 1942”, “an all-women [Bureau of Land Management] crew worked on fires in Alaska during the summer of 1971, and a crew of [US Forestry Service] women worked that year and the following year in Montana.”“Women in Firefighting: A Brief History” by Terese M. Floren in Women in Fire (2007)
- “The First Women on Hotshot Crews” by Amanda Monthei in Outside Magazine (23 July 2020)
- “Mary Kwart: Wildland Fire Pioneer” – a collection by the US National Park service that aggregates a combination of written and recorded interviews with one of the first female hotshots, Mary Kwart.
- Hotshot History of America from National Interagency Hotshot Conference (10-14 February, 1992)
- Hotshot Crew History in America from National Interagency Hotshot Crews (August 2019)
Additional reading on female hotshots & their experiences
Here are some pieces on modern female hotshots I came across while doing my research:
- “Drawn to Flame: Women Forged by Wildfire” by Dayle Wallien in National Forest Foundation (2017)
- “The women battling wildfires and breaking barriers in the American wilderness” by Alex Potter in The National Geographic (13 August 2020; paywalled, sorry!)
- “Female ‘hotshot’ firefighters want action on reproductive health risks” by Lucy Sherriff in The Guardian (11 August 2021)
- “Trial by Fire” by Krista Langlois in High Country News (30 May 2016)
- Wildfire: A Novel by Mary Pauline Lowry (2014; NOTE: I haven’t read this but the author is a former hotshot firefighter.)
And that’s about as far as I got. With more time, I would have loved to dig further, but since this was just part of background research for a new story and I was on a deadline, I couldn’t.
I also went down a separate research rabbit hole about LGBTQ+ life in 1973 and 1974, but I didn’t need to do as deep a dive on that and didn’t dig into as many primary sources.
I hope you enjoyed going down this research rabbit hole with me! I’d love to learn more about female hotshots (historical or modern) any time, so please feel free to comment below or reach out with questions or suggestions!