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U.S. Forest Service summer camp introduces girls to wildland firefighting

The inaugural “Girls in Green” camp in Pine Valley introduced teen girls to various professions in the U.S. Forest Service

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Teenage girls work a fire hose and nozzle during training for hose lay. The girls are part of the 31 teenagers taking part in the Girls in Green program hosted by the Cleveland Forest at Kitchen Creek Helibase on Saturday, June 29, 2024, in Pine Valley, CA.

Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune

By Emily Alvarenga
The San Diego Union-Tribune

PINE VALLEY, Calif. — In the midst of the summer heat at Kitchen Creek Helibase in Pine Valley on Saturday, more than two dozen teen girls worked together to learn some of the fundamental skills they’d need to become wildland firefighters.

Some let out excited whoops once they successfully started a weed wacker for the first time, while others stood alongside offering “you got this” encouragements — exemplifying the camaraderie the U.S. Forest Service’s inaugural “Girls in Green” camp was aspiring to create.

“What they’re seeing is how we all work together,” said Cindy Petrich, one of the camp’s founders. “We’re all here for the same mission, the same purpose. … Even just being the one female amongst 20 (men), but when you both have green and yellow (uniforms) on, you’re all one, you’re all expected to give 110 percent.”

Thirty-one girls from the greater San Diego area, ages 16 to 18, participated in the four-day training camp led by dozens of female wildland professionals from across the state in a bid to recruit more women into firefighting.

The camp was developed by eight female firefighters with the Cleveland National Forest, where crews often have to battle blazes in dense vegetation — an especially daunting task this year since fire officials have predicted a rougher than usual fire season.

“It’s not a fire season, it’s a fire year,” said Samantha Fausel, the operations section chief for Girls in Green who typically works at Camp Ole Fire Station on Mt. Laguna. “The more that the environment changes, we’re dealing with (wildfires) year-round.”

As with many other fire agencies, the local Forest Service has struggled with staffing shortages, particularly among women. Although the service has a particularly large number of females in leadership positions, not many young women are coming into the field, Fausel explained.

Fausel said many don’t know that the Forest Service is a career option, or if they do, they may think it’s too intimidating. “But that’s the whole point of this camp,” she said.

Attendees received an introduction to wildland firefighting along with first aid skills and basic survival techniques.

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They also had the opportunity to meet professionals in various fields at a career fair that showcased the diverse range of occupations within the agency, such as wildlife biologists, engineers and hydrologists.

Many participants said they were most surprised to learn of the different paths available to them.

“There’s so many different job opportunities in this field,” said Natalia Sparta, an 18-year-old from San Diego. “And no matter what you want to do, they have (a role) for you.”

Not only was the camp an opportunity for La Mesa resident Zoey Carrillo to get a glimpse into her father’s life as a firefighter, but she’s now considering following in his footsteps after becoming interested in the Forest Service’s fisheries program.

“It’s been really interesting,” Carrillo said. “I want to ask him so many more questions.”

On Saturday, campers were introduced to a firefighting helicopter crew who walked them through the various equipment on the aircraft.

Helicopters help firefighters battle thousands of wildfires annually and assist in remote rescue operations like those involving heat-exhausted hikers on popular trails across the county.

The girls then rotated through hands-on training exercises, which included learning how to maneuver heavy hoses used to extinguish fires and using hand tools like rakes to stop flames from spreading by clearing vegetation.

Lisa Bilz, a retired Forest Service battalion chief who spent time on a hotshot team, a specialized wildland fire handcrew, said she was excited to return for Girls in Green.

“When people think ‘firefighter,’ they think (city) municipalities … so knowing that there is a land management agency that does fire is pretty spectacular,” Bilz said. “Looking around, we’re all different sizes, and yet we’ve all done this job.”

The mentorship firefighters like Bilz can provide is what Petrich says is vital to inspiring the next generation of women in the fire service.

“My passion is just being one with the crew,” Petrich said. “It’s a purpose, a sense of service, and to instill any of those kinds of desires into even one of them would be considered a success, in my opinion.”

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Female firefighters comprise approximately 9% of the firefighting workforce, creating unique challenges and opportunities for the women who join the ranks to serve their communities. The Female Firefighters resource page covers an array of news related to women in the fire service, including promotions and other career triumphs, as well as information about standards and policies to create more equitable and inclusive spaces for women. Hear from female firefighters of all ranks about their experiences, from serving on the front lines of the firefight to leading fire departments and fire service organizations.