This Girl Is On Fire – Katie Campbell Reveals What It’s Like to be a Wildland Firefighter

This Girl Is On Fire – Katie Campbell Reveals What It’s Like to be a Wildland Firefighter

by Lauren Jonik

Lauren Jonik: What inspired you to pursue firefighting as a profession? What kind of training is required?

Katie Campbell is a wildland firefighter with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Katie Campbell: I was looking for a summer job to fulfill the co-op requirement of my college program. I studied Adventure Recreation and Parks Management. In order to even apply to be a forest firefighter in Ontario, one must complete a weeklong course which includes a lot of field applications, including a mock fire and sling training with a helicopter.

Once the course is completed, applicants must successfully complete the WFX-fit test and then they may apply for jobs within the Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMRF).

Training is ongoing throughout the fire season. There are annual mandatory requirements and there is additional training available for those interested in building a career within the fire program.

LJ: You worked as a wildland firefighter in Canada for 4 years. What was the terrain like? How do fire fighting techniques differ in rural settings versus urban areas?

KC: The terrain in Canada can vary drastically, from swampy lowlands with windswept giant white pines to rocky coastal highlands of Lake Superior to unforgiving mountain terrain in the Rockies.

Northern Ontario, where I was stationed, is especially gifted with an abundance of the dreaded blackfly. Through forest fire fighting I discovered that I have a severe allergic reaction to their bites and had to take a daily allergy pill to keep the inflammation under control.

Traditionally, structural (or urban) firefighters have very limited training in wildland fires with the exception of rural volunteer departments. Forest fire fighters have no training in structural fires and are not permitted in taking action on structural fires. The hazards are completely different. Structural firefighters have their bunker gear, and oxygen, and are trained to be aware of collapsing structures and backdrafts. They also have extensive rescue training. Fire rangers wear Nomex pants and shirts, hard hats, safety boots, safety glasses and gloves. Most will carry a cotton bandana for heavy smoke situations. It is not practical to have breathing apparatus or oxygen in the field.

LJ: What obstacles, if any, have you encountered being a female firefighter? Were there other women on your crew?

KC: We are typically placed on a new crew each year, and I have always been the only female on my crews. I have heard of an all female crew and word on the fireline is they were a solid crew. I’ve been told in Canada that less than one percent of applicants are female. My employer, the provincial government, made an effort to hire more than 1 percent female fire rangers.

As for obstacles as a woman on the fireline, I would have to say periods are a pretty big pain in the ass. A good majority of ladies use some sort of menstrual cup, because otherwise you have store and pack out used disposable products.

Another hazard of the job is misogyny. There are still a lot of people who don’t believe women have a place in firefighting. And there is still a lot to be done to accommodate women in firefighting careers. I would love to see female representation from the union for women-specific issues and better sensitivity training. I recently saw a photo of this year’s Crew Leaders Conference. There were about 60 crew leaders in the photo, representing the crews from all of the fire bases in the province of Ontario. Two were women. This photo speaks volumes.

Although less than one percent of applicants are female, the OMNRF hires approximately 10 percent females. There is a staff retention problem in the fire program and it is especially bad with female rangers. There is not a problem with the ladies’ capacity to do the job, but there is obviously something wrong within the system.

LJ: Your job necessitated a certain level of fitness. What was required to remain in strong physical and psychological condition? Is there a training regimen (diet, exercise, etc) that you found particularly useful?

KC: Our fitness test changed about five years ago and is especially grueling. The wildland fire fighters from the U.S. have been considering adopting our new test. I spent 3-4 months per year training six days per week for the test.

I find it easier to eat well all year round than to try to change my diet for a specific period of time. I have relied on weight training combined with cardio for my training. I don’t think any one method is better than another because our bodies all respond so differently. I think it is important to get in touch with your body and its strengths and weaknesses, so you can focus your training to accommodate both. As for diet, I don’t follow any specific plan. I don’t eat dairy because it doesn’t agree with me. I eat a lot of vegetables, lean protein (local and grass-fed whenever possible) and grains and beans in moderation.

LJ: How did you stay focused in tense situations on the job?

KC: We have a military based structure on the job, so in tense situations, responses become automatic. We have protocol for almost every situation. It really helps you stay calm knowing there’s pretty much a plan for every scenario. I have been in a few tight spots and the most important thing is to stay calm and remain aware of your surroundings.

LJ: What has been your most memorable experience professionally?

KC: My most memorable experience in fire would have to be getting dispatched to my first fire. There was road access, so we were driving there and Alicia Keys’ “Girl On Fire” came on the radio. I was like, “Hey, this song is for me!” Without missing a beat, my crew leader said he had called in to request it.

LJ:  Are there new technologies that are commonly used for wildland firefighting?

KC: There have been a couple of students doing master’s degrees in Kinesiology who have been studying the Ontario Fire Rangers for the last few years. Through their research, they discovered that Initial Attack fire crews burn up to 10,000 calories per day in the first few days of deployment. The only other profession with any comparable energy requirements is professional athletes. The fire program now refers to us as “occupational athletes,” and they have developed a training program to help us maintain physical fitness throughout the fire season.

There is also a Canadian university which has a program that works with the fire program to improve our equipment and design even better gear to assist us in our jobs. One example is our hose packs. These are large square backpacks that hold four 100 ft lengths of fire hose which weigh about 55 lbs dry and nearly 90 lbs wet. The engineering students developed a better pack with more ergonomic shoulder straps and several added handles for easier maneuvering in the field.

LJ: How often did you have to respond to non-fire related emergencies?

KC: In Ontario, we are employed for Aviation Forest Fire and Emergency Services, which means we can be deployed to sandbag for flood prevention or help with oil pipeline fires and other emergencies. There was a big ice storm a number of years ago that had many Ontario fire rangers down in the Toronto area for weeks, cutting down and trimming trees to help clear roads and walkways.

The large majority of our time is spent on fire suppression, but we are always ready to help when needed.

LJ: What is life like during the off-season?

KC: As you can imagine, there are no forest fires during our long, cold, snowy Canadian winters, so we typically only work 5 to 6 months per year. Many people make annual migrations to their fire bases, as most are located in small, often isolated communities. Only a couple of fire management headquarters have staff housing and those of us without are left to find alternative solutions.

There was a legendary rental house known as “the fire hostel” which has played host to more fire rangers than any other address in the small town of Wawa, Ontario. I lived with four others in a 3 bedroom apartment in Timmins, Ontario, where I slept on an air mattress for six months. At least I had a bedroom. One of our other roommates slept on a cot behind the couch in our communal living room. Last summer, tired of roommate life, I moved into my converted school bus (that I named Mountain Girl) and found home to be wherever I parked it.

LJ: What advice would you give a young woman who wanted to pursue being a firefighter?

KC: I say to go for it! It is hard work, but extremely rewarding and we need more women in firefighting!

LJ: What are the most important things someone should remember if faced with a fire?

KC: In Ontario, we have a program called FireSmart. During quieter times of the fire season, rangers work with the public to inform people in how best to protect their camps and cottages from being damaged by fire and we have a strong educational component to help educate the public in how to prevent forest fires from starting in the first place.

If you do find a forest fire, call your local hotline to report it and get yourself out of the area as soon and as safely as possible.

Katie Campbell always wanted to be a mother more than anything. When she discovered that wasn’t possible (in the traditional sense), she decided to pursue a life of adventure. Aside from fire fighting, Katie is a doula (certified labor and birth coach), taught belly dance classes, was part of a Burlesque troupe, ran three half-marathons and won a silver medal in a duathlon (all miraculously while being obese according to the BMI). The last three winters Katie has spent traveling in Central America, learning Spanish and salsa dancing, while taking time out to climb volcanos and swim in volcanic hot springs. To follow her adventures, check her out on Instagram, @katieofthelake.

Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Amendo, The Establishment, Bustle, Calliope and Ravishly. When she is not co-editing, she is working towards her Master’s degree in Media Management at The New School. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.

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