In The Line of Fire: Lessons Learned From Fire Camp
By Mira Reverente, GWHLA Member
“Perseverance is stubbornness with a purpose” - Josh Shipp
It was one of those things - I saw a post about a women-only “fire camp” back in 2017 so I applied. I didn’t get in. I had forgotten about it and moved on to other things. Last fall, I found out that I got accepted. I was dumbfounded!
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity so this solo mom moved heaven and earth in order to attend the week-long Women in Wildfire Camp in Sylmar. I won’t bore you with the mind-boggling logistics of leaving a business and my brood behind, but talk about grabbing a bull by its horns!
Our days and nights were mostly structured. Physical training at 0600 everyday, breakfast at 0815, classes at 0900, lunch at 1200, classes again at 1300 - you get the drift. Some days we would head out for some practical exercises around the compound or on the trails like that time we learned how to use the different fire hoses or how to build a fire line or how to utilize the different fire suppression techniques.
I loved the structure and the vast amount of newfound knowledge which just increased every minute I was there. We were encouraged by our instructors to become “good students of fire” and absorb everything the camp had to offer.
I also learned the following:
❏ It’s never too late for anything. At 47, I was the oldest in the group, so I was under no illusion that I would become a firefighter. But there are other federal jobs, specifically in the National Forest Service, where age is not a factor. There are jobs in my areas of interest: logistics and public affairs, where one doesn’t have to be in her 20s or 30s.
❏ Accept my uniqueness. Not only was I the oldest, I was from a minority, and only one of three moms with school-age children. Like I said, I was not interested in a fire line position, unlike majority of the women. However, I knew I had something unique to offer, being an entrepreneur and quite well-versed in planning and logistics. I knew there was a place for me there somewhere in the fire universe.
❏ Build rapport quickly. One of our instructors put it well, “Find common ground with people.” We actually have more in common with people we routinely meet than we actually think. But we (or they) get boxed into these stereotypes and preconceived notions, largely due to our upbringing and personal experiences. Another instructor called it “rapid team building” or when you have to quickly bond or at the very least get along with your teammates because your life may depend on theirs in the field, and versa.
❏ Embrace discomfort, for an uncomfortable amount of time. Being a long distance hiker and a semi-retired marathoner, I thought I got the PT part of the camp down. Of course not! I have not sprinted since Obama’s first term. I was always the last woman to finish whenever we would go out for runs. The few mornings we ventured out to hike, it took me awhile to warm up but I eventually caught up with the group on the ascents, which I seem to do better on. Did I mention we had to hike with a hand tool - an axe or Pulaski for me? So suffice it to say, there was so much discomfort EVERY SINGLE DAY. Half of the time, I questioned my abilities and my sense of purpose. But guess what? It got better. I got better. One morning, I was the second to the last person in the sprints. I’ll take that.
❏ Strong mind equals strong body. It may be a cliche but a lot of experts do say that it’s really “90% mental and just 10% physical.” Yogi Berra said it. The Navy SEALS swear by it. The mind is such a powerful tool. It will decide to push on and break barriers, long before the body decides. So train your mind to persevere, push further and to go beyond the last challenge you conquered.
The Women in Wildfire Camp does not guarantee federal employment, but it does get your foot in the door. Fourteen of us tackled and 11 passed the same pack test (three-mile walk in 45 minutes or less with a 45 lb. pack) that all potential wildland firefighters have to take. We learned some of the intensive classroom modules that recruits take. On graduation day, we met and hobnobbed with fire chiefs and other higher-ups with the National Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. We got to ask many questions and explore our areas of interest with the veterans and experts in the field.
It was an enriching ambassadorship program at the very least, aimed at introducing and recruiting more women into the fire lines - strong and unique women like you and me.
Mira Reverente joined GWHLA in 2017 and since then has conquered the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge, Mt. Whitney, Rim to Rim Challenge and many other SoCal trails, with her newfound trail sisters. A Ventura County resident, she is a mom of two, an entrepreneur, journalist and a published author.