Episode 140: Hotshot Wildland Firefighter

Interview with Amanda Monthei

Sponsored by Sierra Designs, Betterhelp, and Travel South Dakota

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Meet Amanda Monthei, a hotshot wildland firefighter and creative who has made it her mission to empower women and all qualified firefighters to know there is space for them in wildland firefighting. We spoke to Amanda about her path to fighting fires as well as her project “The Women Before Me” that celebrates the women of the Zig Zag hotshot crew, the legacies they humbly left behind, and the qualities they brought to the US Forest Service.

In this episode, we learn how the common traits women bring to the firefighting field are important and why it’s valuable to have those traits in any typically male-dominant field. Amanda wants more women to be wildland firefighters, as well to do other outdoor work like trail building or outdoor management. She encourages them by showcasing the impact and lives of the women who have paved the way for her and asking others to be open to alternative career paths.

Looking for a transcript? Scroll after the photos!

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Featured in this episode: Amanda Monthei

Hosted by Gale Straub

Music in this episode is by Meydan, Josh Woodward, Swelling, and Kai Engel using a Creative Commons attribution license.

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Amanda and the Women Who Came Before Her

Zig Zag
Amanda Monthei
Zigzag Brush Disposal Crew; photo by Beth Gorill
Kimberly Brandel during her first full season on the crew in 1976.

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TRANSCRIPT

Gale – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Amanda:

It’s not right for everybody. And I, and I would hope that this platform that I’m using maybe inspires people to pursue any job that they’re looking at, that they maybe think, Oh, I don’t know, it’s going to be a bunch of dudes, I am not strong enough, or I’m not confident enough to do this, or whatever it is in whatever the position is. I think I want to get it out there that you should at least give it a shot or that you are maybe capable of more than you think you are because that’s what I found out about myself.

Gale – Narration:

This is Amanda Monthei. Amanda’s what’s known as a hotshot wildland firefighter.

Amanda:

Hotshot crews are generally known for being able to work in steeper terrain or rougher terrain or, um, maybe more dangerous environments.

Gale – Narration:

The US forest service describes hotshots as “an elite hand crew consisting of 20-22 wildland firefighters, with specific qualifications to provide leadership for initial-attack and extended-attack on wildland fires across the US.” They’re highly trained and self-sufficient.

Amanda:

The distinction for hotshot crews I guess is simply that we are self-sufficient almost a hundred percent and we can uh, we can go out and work a fire for three days and be completely self-sufficient the whole time. We have all the food we need, we have all the water we need, all the tools we need. Basically they can tell us to go do something for three days and we can go do it for three whole days without needing pretty much anything.

Gale – Narration:

Amanda had some difficulty owning up to the level of skill hotshots have – which isn’t surprising given that hotshots pride themselves on a lack of ego or bragging. They’re just there to get the job done. Amanda takes her work as a wildland firefighter very seriously. And as you heard her at the beginning, she wants to welcome more women into the field. She’s seen firsthand the special skillset they bring to the job. We’ll talk about that, but first – Amanda grew up in Indian River, Michigan and now splits her time between Zigzag, Oregon and Bellingham, Washington. She started thinking about becoming a wildland firefighter because she saw other women doing it. As an adventurous midwesterner, her curiosity was piqued.

Amanda:

I got started because I knew a couple of women in college who were fighting fire. I at that time literally did not know men, any men who did it. I only knew of women who are doing this. Um, and I was seeing what they were doing and I was seeing that they were traveling a lot, seeing really beautiful country, doing really cool things. And um, and I was like, well, sort of a flip switched one day where I was like, I’m kind of obsessing over this. I’m kind of like looking up a lot of information about it and watching YouTube videos about it. I sort of met this threshold of like, maybe this is something I could pursue and I’m spending a lot of time thinking about it and researching it. So why would I not just give it a shot? At that time I um, was writing for a newspaper in my hometown living at home and I was like, this could be a good way to go out West, which has always been a dream of mine. Of course, like growing up in the Midwest you, it’s kind of like the big thing is like how can I make going out West work, how can I, how can I live out there and make it actually work? So I was able to take a few classes in Michigan, which really helped me in terms of just putting something on my resume because I at that time had no, had very little manual labor experience. I had very little in the way of qualifications for a job like this.

Gale – Narration:

The classes were called S-130/190. Amanda explained that they are introductory wildland fire classes that teach you about fire behavior and fire suppression strategies. She also took courses called: Wildland Fire Pumps and Chainsaws as well as Intro to Air Operations, which is a rundown of the different aircraft they use for fire suppression and crew shuttles. The first two courses are offered once you’re on a crew, but Amanda wanted to go in with additional knowledge — especially since she didn’t have a lot of manual labor experience.

Amanda:

And so I went and did these classes and I kind of bulked up my resume a little bit. I ended up with a position in Northern Idaho.

Gale – Narration:

Amanda started off doing engine work on something called an engine crew. They range in size from two to 10 firefighters and they’re different from hand crews because they use fire engines that carry special equipment to spray water and foam to mange the perimeter of fires. Amanda describes it as being attached to an engine, which means most of your work is done on roads. She enjoyed the work, but wanted to join a hand crew for her second season.

Amanda:

I didn’t like the engine life too much. I just kind of recognize right off the bat that I wanted to do what’s called hand crew work where you’re, it’s a crew of 20 people and you’re doing more of like the digging line and hiking in and hiking out and getting flown into fires and doing all of like the sort of romanticized stuff that comes with wild land. Firefighting engine work was fine and it introduced me to the world which I thought was good, could have been overwhelming to hop right into hand crew work.

Gale – Narration:

When Amanda talks about digging a fireline, she’s talking about creating a break in fuel for wildfire. Fuel is underbrush, dry grasses — anything that incinerates quickly and causes the fire to spread. Handcrews dig down to the mineral soil in order to contain the fire. There’s a lot to this job – forest management by way of fire prevention and containing fires that naturally occur. Sometimes wildfire fighters also start fires, called prescribed burns, to eat up the fuel to prevent larger, more dangerous fires from occurring. After that second season on a hand crew, Amanda applied and got accepted to be a hotshot firefighter on the Zigzag crew at Mount Hood in Oregon.

Gale:

So you got, you got started doing this work and you kind of escalated up to working as a hotshot. Um, how’d you know that you wanted to keep working fire?

Amanda:

It was a progressive realization like after my first summer I was like maybe one more just to continue seeing how this goes after my season on the hand crew, it was like a natural progression to want to try to get on a hotshot crew. And it’s also a matter of you go out and you see, you see so much like cool stuff. I don’t know. You see a lot of really great country. You see, um, you get to experience a lot of things that in your normal life you would never be able to experience. Um, like being flown into fires and seeing like active fire behavior and watching trees torch out and you see all these like crazy things and it kind of starts to become like, how much more can I see? Like what more can I, if, if I do one more season, like what could that season hold?

Amanda:

And then you do another season and you get more experience. And so I guess by my second season or my third season in fire, when I first got on the shot crew at that point I was like, well I’ll do one more season on the shocker because it’s kind of, you know, you don’t want to just do one season on a crew on a crew like that. You want to kind of put in your time and see where it goes and kind of progress in within that crew. After my first season I was like, yeah, I’ll do one more and just see how it goes. And then I had another great season and I’m kind of in the same boat now where I’m like, uh, another season would be awesome. You know, I’d love to work up into more of a leadership position eventually and continue working on my own qualifications to be a more valuable member of any crew that I end up on in the future.

Amanda:

And just the nature of of hotshot work is that you see a lot of fire behavior and you do a lot of assignments that you like. The volume of assignments that you’re getting is more than you would get on a hand crew. Um, we’re nationally available, we’re available to go even internationally. Last summer we went to Canada and I’m in generally in a summer you’ll travel anywhere from, you know, a couple of or a couple of States to eight States, nine States and is that many fires as well? Dozens of fires and some seasons. So you end up with just a lot of experience from a lot of different places.

Gale – Narration:

This experience accumulates over time. It makes you a better firefighter.

Amanda:

Yeah. You build your slideshow, they call it, you’re building this constant sort of mental slideshow of things that you’ve seen before and how you will deal with it now. Having seen it before. Whereas sometimes like when you’re in your first couple of seasons, you’re seeing things that you would have never imagined you’d see or like experience, like doing assignments that you would have never imagined getting. And once you sort of develop more and more of that mental slideshow of, of experiences and, and different types of fire in different types of terrain and different fuel types, then you’re just all the more qualified in the future.

Gale – Narration:

That knowledge is accelerated as a hotshot. They end up working consistently throughout the summer as they’re always on call for the more complex cases.

Amanda:

The flexibility in this job and like being able do anything at any time is probably the most challenging part of this job for a lot of people. Like you could any anytime be called to do any kind of assignment. And uh, and so even when you’re at home enjoying yourself, you have a few extra days off because there’s no fire calls. Um, at any time you could get a call and you could be on your way to Utah or, you know, New Mexico or Alaska at any time. You’re always flexible. It’s something I’ve been working on and you’re always down for whatever.

Gale – Narration:

Needless to say, if you like variety, this is the job for you.

Amanda:

We don’t ever have a single day that is the same as the day before. Well it’s rare anyway, so you have burnouts, you have digging line, you have mop up days. Um, you have days where you’re digging line right next to the fire where it’s called, it’s called hotline and you are right there in it and it’s kind of the most intense assignment you can get is when you’re digging hotline, you know, you’re right next to the fire. It’s usually burning pretty decently, actively. It’s usually like still a ground fire, but every now and then, um, trees will light. Sometimes you have a line that gets crossed by the fire and then you have a real issue on your hands and you have to go wrap that up. And that can require a lot of, uh, breathing in smoke. A lot of just like really intense work for short bursts of time or even an entire shift if things really went wrong. So it can be any, it can be anything. And the common denominators for all of it is waking up at about five and then eating breakfast and then going out and doing whatever you’re a supervisor tells you to do.

Gale:

So I’m, I’m guessing that a nine to five office job wouldn’t really suit you.

Amanda:

Uh, it really doesn’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve um, yeah, it really does and I think I’m, I’m really happy I learned that about myself early on because at this point I’m, I love the really random flexible nature of fire and just being always, you never really know what’s next. And I do love that nature of the job.

Gale – Narration:

Amanda wants other women to see being a hotshot firefighter as a possibility for them too.

Amanda:

It’s still not really being projected by like the wider firefighting culture and just society in general generally isn’t telling women that this is something that they can pursue or making it a viable opportunity for them. So my soapbox lately has certainly been trying to convince more women, I’m not even convinced, but like talk to more women about what I do and empower them to think more broadly about what’s possible and what careers they could potentially pursue if they, if they want to do so.

Gale – Narration:

We’ll hear more about the women that came before Amanda as a zigzag, hot shot firefighter and the women. Amanda wants to welcome onto the job with her after this.

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EPISODE CONTINUES

Gale – Narration:

Amanda loves what she does and she wants more women to become wildland firefighters as well as to take on other kinds of outdoor work like trail building and forest management. The first step, recognizing the unique strengths women bring to these kinds of jobs.

Amanda:

You get these traditional male-dominated positions that a lot of people think just require brute strength, just require being able to lift a lot of weight. In reality, these jobs are really diverse and rely on a lot of different skills and a lot of different characteristics that both male and females have and I think it’s especially important to bring females into those environments because they bring this certain level, and I talked with the women from 30 40 years ago. They all had very similar things to say in regards to what women bring into those dynamics into those generally like sort of macho, alpha sort of environments. Women can bring a certain level of like maybe compassion and empathy and being able to relate on a little bit deeper of a level with the people around them and with their coworkers and contribute generally to a more, I wouldn’t say positive, but just to generally more diverse and a more welcoming work environment, especially for other women.

Gale:

I imagine that when you diversify group, especially from a gender perspective, when women start expressing themselves and creating a different environment, that also gives not permission to the men too, but it changes the culture of the group so that like everyone’s more able to express themselves or or handle and tackle problems different ways.

Amanda:

It’s hard to talk about this because you don’t want to, you don’t want to generalize genders. You don’t want to be like, yes, women have less ego across the board and so therefore we are better at making these decisions. We’re better at like speaking up when things feel wrong where you don’t want to make those generalizations. But I have heard, you know, just in specific situations, I have heard that women are a little more able to and willing to speak up and play in situations that feel a little bit off or feel a little bit wrong, whether it’s regarding safety or crew dynamics or, um, the way that somebody is going about something, you know, we maybe have, and I think that’s where the compassion and empathy comes in is that you just, you have a better way of, of yeah. Bringing up those issues and um, and talking about them in a way that’s really beneficial to everyone.

Amanda:

But it’s hard to talk about what women bring into those environments because men can bring those things just as well. And, um, but I think, I think like in the generalization of there being too few women in fire, I do think that there’s a huge, there’s going to be a loss in the way that crews are run if they aren’t actively looking for high-quality women to fill out their ranks like that. That diversity, whether it’s women, minorities, people of color, you know, I really think any of that diversity is going to bring, you’re bringing different experiences. You’re bringing a different way of thinking. You’re bringing a different set of values and background and all these different things that you maybe aren’t getting when you have a crew of 20 very homogenous men.

Gale – Narration:

Back in November, Amanda released a multimedia project called the women before me profiling women who paved the way for Amanda on the zigzag hotshot crew starting in 1976. One of the benefits of the seasonal nature of wildfire fighting is that Amanda is able to pursue her other passions, including writing and filmmaking.

Gale:

How did the women before me project get started? Like what was going through your head when you decided to reach out to these women?

Amanda:

Yeah, I was really grateful to have a little bit of support from, um, the American wildfire experience. Specifically, Bethany Hannah, who was actually on the crew that I’m on in 1998 in 1999 she’s been super supportive of people documenting their experiences in wildfire and she was able to offer through mystery ranch a grant to I think 20 creatives in just in wildland fire. Uh, so I received a videography grant from her and from Mystery Ranch as well. And so I received that in the spring and I started thinking like, what’s going to be the most empowering or maybe the most provoking way to go about this project, what’s going to be the most uh, memorable? And so I started out and I was like, Oh, I’ll do like a day in the life of a hotshot. And then I started thinking about that and I’m like, no, that’s pretty, that’s pretty lame.

Amanda:

And also pretty like cut and dry. So I early in the season we had a little barbecue with a bunch of the women and men who fought fire for the crew that I’m on now. Before it was like a reunion almost and we had a little potluck and we ended up chatting. I ended up chatting with a bunch of the women and taking a photo with them and I was like just so infatuated with their experiences and what they had to say. I felt like the conversations that we had, I hadn’t, I did not have nearly enough time with them to be able to like pick their brains so I was like okay, all of you, I am calling you in the fall and we’re having a conversation. We’re going to meet up for coffee or something cause I really want to chat more with you guys. I was really interested in hearing about their experiences.

Gale – Narration:

Amanda talked with four women and was so taken with the way they described their experiences that she decided to focus her entire project on them.

Amanda:

Early in the season, I had a project where I was making frames or I was making shelving for all the old crew photos and just to like spice the place up a little bit and make it nicer. And I was looking at all these photos like twice a day, just like setting them up there and taking them down as I was, as I was working on my project, I was noticing all these women and how their smiles in the way that they held themselves reminded me so much of myself. I was like, I know what that smile means and know what it’s like to be that tired, like just have those exhausted eyes and to like be that filthy and to have a messy ponytail and to still be smiling like bigger than I’ve ever smiled. So I saw a lot of this and I was like, okay, that’s a good, that’s a good path forward.

Amanda:

And so I started reaching out, like I said, to all these women that I saw in the photos. What I found was just that our experiences were vastly different just simply because of their, the nature of them being the very first of the hotshots pretty much in the country. They were some of the first hot shots in the country and some of the first women in leadership positions on Hotshot crews and their experiences were vastly different from mine. But at the same time there were these little elements that connected us that I was like, I know exactly what that’s like and to feel that way about something that happened maybe 40 years ago or to feel that way about a career that there’s not been a lot of women in this job. So to like talk to women and have similar experiences over a 40-year span was really valuable and really, um, empowering to me to know that also all of the hard difficult things that they had to face. All of the sort of like achy or things that you hear about with early women, the first women to get into this job also paved the way for me. Like a lot of the work that they did made it so I could do what I do without, um, without having to deal with a lot of what they dealt with.

Amanda:

It was cool to hear how their presence in the forest service really, uh, really changed things, really changed policy and they like put up a lot of fights that made it a lot easier for women to pursue this job in this era. I’m not to say that it’s all been fixed, but, um, it’s certainly much better than it was, which is, it was a really empowering project to work on. And I was really happy with how it turned out and really happy that everyone was willing to talk to me because a lot of the times hotshots have a thing against media and against ’em, you know, being, you know, sort of accolades and being honored for the work that they did. A lot of, a lot of people like really shy away from that in this world. And I’m kind of, I’m kind of turning that on its head for a lot of these women. Like they’ve never really had the, um, they’ve never been interviewed like that. Like that history was just going away as, as they got older, you know, so I was really thankful to be able to speak with them and to be able to give them a platform to share their experiences because nobody else had really done that yet from what I’ve found.

Gale:

Hmm. Yeah, it’s super cool. And one of the things that I loved is that you, you did cover some of those challenges and you went into it assuming that you would be talking a lot about some of those hurdles that they went over, but they also stressed, and I’m quoting from the piece right now, but they stress that they became better women, tougher women, the best versions of themselves. And I wonder if you see that in, in your work too.

Amanda:

Yeah, Absolutely. Um, I really cannot stress enough how much, uh, fire has changed the way that I look at the world and changed the way that I see myself. It’s given me a level of self-confidence that I didn’t think that I had. And it’s really empowered me. You know, you’re doing these jobs that are traditionally not things that women in their twenties have an opportunity to learn. You’re learning how to use a chainsaw and do it well. You’re learning how to hike with a chainsaw. You’re learning how to, you know, work within a crew dynamic of that is generally a lot of, a lot of men in a lot of different personalities. That’s a really valuable thing that I’ve learned is just working with a variety of different people that you didn’t know at all, maybe a couple months ago. And now you’re all working together and you’re cohesive and you’ve become friends with these people and you’re working with them on a day to day basis and you’re getting along with them.

Amanda:

Well, and that’s a really valuable lesson to learn. I mean, the less the lessons I’ve learned about fire have been immense and they started and ended with having women before me, that, that did it. And that like fought for changes for me and fought for and for everybody in the industry really. And also just from being inspired to even pursue this job by other women. So, yeah, I’ve been really grateful to have found fire. I really don’t know what my life would be like if I hadn’t figured out that I could maybe try it and see if it was fun. And then ended up discovering that it was really fun.

Gale – Narration:

As a talented freelance writer, there’s a lot that Amanda could do with her career – in fire and otherwise. I couldn’t help but reflect on the impact a passionate woman like her could have on other people who are interested in fire.

Gale:

You progressing in your career means one more role model. One more woman, you know who people who are entering the field can, can look to, and that’s… Not that you need, the onus needs to be on you to do that. But that’s a very positive after effect I suppose of you sticking with fire.

Amanda:

Yeah. That’s a good thought. I, I don’t like to like to associate myself with the role model idea and um, but it is, it’s been a thing. It’s been, it’s been like a real part of my life the last few years just trying to give women mentorship in this job. Like, even if I’m only four years deep, I can still mentor women who are just getting into it and I still have this little bit of experience and knowledge that I’m able to share with them. And I’ve had so many women reach out to me and ask me how I got into this or like ask me questions about they’re coming into their first season and they’re stressed out about something in particular and they’re able to like, and I’m able to sort of like talk them down like it’s not, it’s not as bad as you think it is or like it’s not going to be easy, but it’s not going to be as hard as you think.

Amanda:

And just being able to provide a little bit of mentorship in that realm has been, has been awesome. And I think the writing thing, even though it’s very averse to the common hot shot culture of not talking about what we do, I do think my, my writing has been really valuable. Just having a platform to tell women that I, or to like show women that I do this and to like give them a little taste of what my life is like so that they can form their own expectations. Um, if they were to pursue a job in not even just fire but in a male-dominated career in general. So I was telling you about like those peripheral experiences that when you first get into this you have no idea what to expect. And just having somebody tell you like what their day to day is like or having like having something to read that explains what a single shift might look like is enough to either influence, influence these people, these women, men, whoever, one way or the other.

Amanda:

Uh, and that’s been, it’s been really nice to have that platform and it’s, and it’s growing. As I continued to share stories like women, women before me and other blog posts and other stories that I’ve written about fire, it’s, it’s kind of started to grow a little bit. Like my, my platform is growing a little and I’ve had even more women reaching out to me to ask questions or to see if this is right for them. And I’m meeting with like a 20-year-old woman tomorrow who has um, some really great manual labor experiences. And she was like, I really think I want to pursue this. Like can you meet up for a coffee? And I’m like, absolutely, please reach out to me and let’s meet up for a coffee or a beer. I would love to tell you about my experiences just to see if it’s right for you. Not to convince you one way or the other, but just to see if it might work or if it’s viable.

Gale – Narration:

Amanda ends the The Women Who Came Before Me piece with a question that she asked Gina Papke, who worked for the Zigzags in the 80’s and went on to be one of the country’s first female hotshot superintendents in 1991. Amanda asked Gina, how did hotshotting change you? She said, quote: “There were things you had to fight for, you just knew what you had to do to keep up and make a difference,” she started. “As Deanne Shulman, the first female smokejumper, used to say, ‘Did the Forest Service change me or did I change the Forest Service?’” It made me think about Amanda and her contemporaries.

Gale:

How do you hope that your, your generation of women is, is changing?

Amanda:

What I hope for is to have three to four, five, maybe even 10 qualified highly effective women on every hot shot crew. I think that would be, what is it like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote, like the ideal number of women on the Supreme court is all of them. You know, it’s, it’s hard to say when that’s going to be possible, but I think eventually it’d be, it would be a huge benefit to the wild land fire community in general. If women were hired more equitably, I guess more if they were just looked at more, um, as, as contributing members of crews and, and also just hired on the basis of their qualifications and given opportunities for growth and given opportunities for leadership, given opportunities simply by being hired onto hot shot crews. And not to say that they should just be like hiring women Willy nilly.

Amanda:

I think that one of the women in the, in the story that I wrote, uh, pointed it out well, like we want everyone to be hired on merit, not on gender. And I think that that’s important. At the same time, I think that there are like a number of high quality women that deserve these positions and I think that if we looked for them and if we gave them the opportunity for growth and leadership that has been given to other people in the industry for a long time, I think that a lot of people would be surprised at how, how effective and how qualified women are to be leaders and not just leaders, but just straight up firefighters. Eventually I think the goal of the forest service should be to be, not necessarily seeking women out, but certainly giving them opportunities on crews on various types of crews so that they can develop them and give them opportunities to grow.

Amanda:

I think simply giving women opportunities and putting them into anybody, really, not even just women, giving anybody an opportunity and helping them develop themselves and giving them opportunities to go to classes and go to different kinds of training and put them in situations that, that will strengthen their, all of their qualities as leaders is hugely beneficial. And I don’t know that that’s not happening right now, but I think if we just made it a more, if we made it more of a priority on certain crews on, on hijackers especially, I think that a lot of people would be surprised at how many, how many high quality and effective women there are in the industry that are like just waiting to be developed. Just waiting to like give, be given opportunities to develop themselves. Like that empowerment is so important. Just simply putting them in situations and um, kind of forcing their hand, like putting them into leadership positions that maybe they’re not necessarily qualified for.

Amanda:

And like, of course, having somebody on hand for questions and for situations that they maybe don’t know how to handle. But putting them in those, in those positions where they have to figure things out and learn and kind of dig within themselves to try to find answers is immensely important, not just in fire, but in any career. That’s what I found anyway. That’s what’s been most empowering for me is just being treated like anybody else and given opportunities like anybody else. And, uh, I think that’s like an oddly progressive thought right now in a lot of industries, not just fire. I think it’s very progressive to think like that we can hire women and we can develop them to be just as good as anybody else on the crew.

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