Book excerpt – ‘Both Sides Of The Fire Line: Memoir of a Transgender Firefighter’
Bobbie Scopa describes a humorous incident that took place while working a wildland fire
The following excerpt is from “Both Sides Of The Fire Line: Memoir of a Transgender Firefighter,” Chapter 10, The Search For Calm Water. Author Bobbie Scopa describes an incident that took place a year after her gender transition, and the leadership challenges that can arise when you’re different from the personnel you’re supervising. In this story, the author details a humorous incident with loggers while working on a large wildland fire.
Scopa is speaking at the Convergence 2023 conference in Denver, Oct. 12-15, 2023.
By Bobbie Scopa
She was really laughing now. “You’re Baywatch, they’re calling you Baywatch.” “Huh, what? I’m Baywatch? Why are they calling me Baywatch?” “You’re a woman from California, driving a truck that looks exactly like the trucks on Baywatch.” Oh brother I thought! This was going to be a challenge. I wasn’t sure how I should handle this group of local loggers. An hour or so later, I caught up with my loggers at the pre-identified meet-up spot. They had not yet finished unloading their heavy equipment and were milling about not getting much done. I found the guy whom I had put in charge and talked to him about my plan and made sure that the equipment assigned was appropriate for what I wanted to do. He seemed agreeable, so after a few minutes talking to him, I started to walk back toward my truck. By now the loggers were gathered around the front of my truck. A couple of them were on their backs lying on the ground under my front bumper. Some of them were kneeling in front of my truck looking, while the rest looked like they were fondling my custom-made, custom-painted bumper. This was my moment to make the impression that I was not like a character from the TV show Baywatch. I would have loved to tell them about the bumper and why I had it. How the bumper had been made by the guy who built all of Chuck Norris’s truck bumpers (a fact that meant nothing to me but seemed to impress all my redneck buddies). How the paint job was done to complement the truck and bumper’s design. But no, that’s not how this was going to go. Using my best angry fire chief voice and with a scowl on my face I said, “Dammit, you guys! Haven’t you ever seen a damned bumper before? Get up and get back to work! Time’s wasting!” They looked up at me with shock on their faces. They scrambled up from the ground and ran back to their pieces of equipment. The rest of the day we put in fire line. They did good work; they were respectful, and not one of them ever called me Baywatch again.
The same local loggers were frustrated with the overall management of the large forest fire. They didn’t think the higher-level managers overseeing the suppression efforts were aggressive enough trying to put out the fire. Resources were limited and there wasn’t much else we could do, but that explanation didn’t satisfy my hardworking, well-intentioned loggers. By this time, I had been assigned a few hand crews and a strike team leader to provide more supervision on the division. The fire had continued backing down the mountain and was at the fire lines we had put in a few days before. We were all actively fighting the fire now. I don’t recall exactly what happened and why, but one day I got into a big argument with a local Forest Service official. The official was not assigned to the fire, but they were upset with some suppression action I was taking. They thought I was being too aggressive and doing some damage to the natural resources. Keep in mind that I had a Bachelor of Science in natural resource management and a Master’s in forestry in addition to my fire administration coursework and twenty-six years of firefighting experience. I wasn’t doing any damage to any resource. But this official was upset with me and my folks. I stepped in and lost my temper. I rarely lose my temper, but I was feeling the frustration of a long fire season and of trying to do too much with too little for too long on the fire. And now a biologist was going to give me lessons on how to protect the natural resources from fire. We were standing out on a dirt road in the middle of my division. My voice was raised, and I got into a shouting match with the guy. I had been standing there alone with him when almost immediately his eyes got big, and he walked quickly back to his truck to drive away. I didn’t know what caused his change of heart. When I turned around, the loggers were walking down the road in my direction. They were all carrying steel rods and big wooden sticks. They looked like they were in a cast of a logger’s version of West Side Story. They were ready to rumble. I was mortified. “No, no! Go back to work!” I shook my head. I was embarrassed by my behavior. I set the worst example I could have as a supervisor. I could have made my point with the official from the office without raising my voice. But my loggers were happy. From their perspective I was doing the right thing. A few days later, my strike team leader said to me, “I don’t know what’s been going on here, but these loggers would follow you into hell.” It gave me pause. It was a reminder of the lesson I already knew: You have to speak in the language of those you’re leading. You can’t talk to the loggers like you do to the mayor.
Before I left the fire after my three-week assignment, I got permission from the incident commander to get one night’s sleep in a hotel. I had been coming down with a sore throat, and I knew if I could get one night’s sleep in a bed off the damp ground, I might avert a weeklong illness. He agreed and I went into town for a night in the only motel. One of the loggers found out I was going to spend the night in town and insisted I had to join the group for a beer at the town tavern. Normally I wouldn’t have done it, but these men and I had covered some ground together. From the first day when they thought I was just a piece of feminine fluff from California to the day that they were ready to back me up in a fight. I went to join them for a beer.
When I walked in, the bar was jam-packed with locals. I felt like the conquering hero walking through the city gates. I couldn’t buy my own beer. As a matter of fact, the bar had beer tokens that you could buy and give away to someone else. When you wanted a beer, the token served as payment. By the end of the night my pockets were literally overflowing with wooden beer tokens. I must have had fifty tokens, and they were falling out of every pocket in my pants and jacket. It was an interesting feeling. I felt a lot of camaraderie with those guys. I don’t know how it would have been a few years before, but now as a female fire chief, I felt comfortable, I felt accepted, and I felt respected. It was a great feeling.
Before I left to go back to the motel, I sat quietly at the bar by myself. After a few minutes, I looked up at the wall, above the mirror behind the bar. There was a nicely carved and painted sign. In big letters it read No Queers Allowed. I laughed to myself, wondering what these tough characters would have said had they known the rest of the story.
About the Author
Bobbie Scopa is a retired firefighter, author, podcast host and public speaker. She has 45 years of firefighting experience and has received numerous professional awards and industry recognition, including Firefighter of the Year (1990) from the Professional Firefighters of Arizona; Governor’s Award, State of Arizona (1990); Certificate of Appreciation from the City of New York for work performed at the World Trade Center in 2001, and the Unit Citation Award for efficacy in the U.S. Forest Service (2014). She was a featured speaker at the U.S. Forest Service’s “Pride Outside” diversity, equity, and inclusion event in June 2021. She is the host of the podcast BobbieOnFire.com where she gives leadership lessons through entertaining stories. Scopa divides her time between Puget Sound, Washington, and Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Both Sides Of The Fire Line: Memoir of a Transgender Firefighter”
Chicago Review Press
© September 2022