'It's getting worse': Frontline female firefighter on this year's historic season

Ko Bragg  |  The 19th Show Caption Hide Caption Wildfires: Centuries of forest mismanagement, clim

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Ko Bragg  |  The 19th
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This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.

Eleonore Jordan Anderson, 32, was working for the Pacific Crest Trail Association when COVID-19 hit and canceled the seasonal work. It was too late to be hired by the United States Forest Service, but she was hired on as a qualified sawyer on her engine crew, she told The 19th in an interview on her “rest and recovery day” between fire assignments. Chainsaw in hand, sawyers are tasked with clearing paths for other firefighters to get through, and taking down hazardous, and dead trees.

Five years ago, Anderson fought her first fire, and has been on the ground for 25 since then, four battles taking place this year alone. She spoke to The 19th on the heels of battling the Lionshead Fire, which stemmed from a lightning strike and has burned more than  203,000 acres in Oregon, destroyed more than 200 homes and  was 15 percent contained as of Wednesday. She then headed farther south in Oregon to the Thielsen Fire for the next two weeks. So far, the blaze has spread across more than  9,900 acres and was 26 percent contained. Anderson doesn’t do much research about fires before she heads out — things can change so much within a day, anyway.  

But the lack of gender diversity in this work remains the same. Anderson says there were less than two dozen women battling the Lionshead Fire. Sometimes there’s one or two, oftentimes there’s none. 

“It’s tough, you know, but it’s also just part of the job,” she said. “I’ve always been in male dominated industries, whether it’s trail crew or fire. There’s a lot of things that aren’t accounted for, like the fact that your pants don’t really fit — they’re meant for guys. There’s just a lot of things like that, but it’s generally OK.” 

Anderson buys her own Nomex, or fire retardant pants, that are fitted for women, running her about $200, she said. It’s that, or take the waistless pants provided. 

Sitting outside in Rhododendron, Oregon, where some friends provided her with lunch on her day off, Anderson frequently coughed and cleared her throat during the conversation with The 19th — all the smoke was making her feel tired. This record-setting fire season is like none other, she said. A million acres have burned in Oregon alone, and wildfires in California have razed the near equivalent of Connecticut. More than a half-million people have been displaced from their homes, others asked to remain strictly shut inside — all while the COVID-19 pandemic wages on. 

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While Anderson loves her work, the nation’s reluctance to react to climate change has become “excruciating” for her to bear, especially taking into account the divestment the Forest Service continues to experience. The Trump administration’s most recent budget zeroed out some private forest management programs to the chagrin of forest leadership: Two-thirds of the nation’s forestland is on state and private land. 

“Every year, proposed and enacted changes to our budgets affect some of us, both professionally and personally, and they affect all of us in terms of our collective ability to care for the land and serve people,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen wrote in February. 

This was the subject of a recent exchange between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Donald Trump. The president maintained that Western states are to blame for the fires because they failed to clear the forest of dead trees and leaves. Newsom, however, pointed to climate change as the cause of the worst fire season in his state’s history. 

Two of every three burned acres across California, Oregon and Washington was federal land managed by Trump’s administration, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.  

In conversation with The 19th, Anderson, one of the nation’s few frontline female firefighters (only 12 percent of wild land firefighters are women), discussed logistics, how COVID-19 has impacted her job and why the environment is on the ballot this November.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 19th: I’ve heard you clear your throat a few times. How’s the smoke affecting you? 

Anderson: I remember when I started fire, I didn’t really know what to expect, and all they really give you is a shroud. I think they’ve tried respirators, they’ve tried those things, but when you’re working and you’re actually sweating you can’t breathe through those things. And so they’ve just kind of figured out, “Alright, when you feel sick, you just get out of there and trade with somebody else,” you know? Or like you kind of like duck your head in the truck if you can or something like that. 

So usually that’s not usually the case?

Fire season, there’s always smoke in the air. But this year has been particularly bad. The fires are getting more violent and aggressive — and a little out of control, clearly. We have a million acres that have burned in Oregon just in the last two weeks or something. But how it’s affecting me, I’m just getting headaches. I feel a little loopy. But, it comes with the job, you know. You just kind of deal with it. 

On top of the worsening fires, how has the job changed because of COVID-19? Some of the symptoms you’re talking about also sound like how COVID presents. What are you doing to navigate this other emergency?

We have a fire camp, right? Which looks half like a music festival and half like a refugee camp, usually. It’s just tents on tents on tents and maybe a shower caddy or something. And now they’re separating us into divisions, because when we’re out on the fireline you can’t really separate from your crew. 

During the briefing in the morning they have the things you need to do for COVID, like wear a mask when you’re at the briefing, wear a mask when you go to the bathroom, wear a mask at a fire camp or when you’re getting food or when you’re having any interaction with other people. And then at the very bottom, it just says “fireline excluded.” So which is just kind of how you have to do it. However, I guess we’re finding out that COVID doesn’t really spread outside, and especially in the smoke nearly as much. I’m from Portland — the protests in Portland have not been spreading [the virus] like people thought that it would. So, I’m not really scared. I think a lot of people are feeling pretty good about it. And maybe the smoke in our lungs makes it bad enough where COVID is like, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” 

We’re doing the best we can. It’s still definitely a risk. 

Who do you call before you head out to a fire?

I call my mom and my best friend, and I call my dad. I just say I’m going to a fire, and I let my parents know which fire it is, where I’ll be, how big it is and, naturally, tell them not to worry — it’ll be fine. My best friend is really possessive. So I have to explain to her why I can’t hang out with her for two weeks — she’s like my boyfriend. 

Is there actually nothing scary about it to you?

Just like any job, there’s a lot of room for error. There’s an excitement that comes with fire that doesn’t come with other jobs. I feel like I’ve always been under people that really know what’s going on, they know their stuff, they have a lot of experience. I’ve never felt unsafe. But it’s one of those jobs that you just kind of have to accept that there’s a lot of room for error, and you can have incidents within an incident. 

Do you have a sense that this is a worse season than normal? Is this as bad as everyone is painting it out to be?

Yes, it is. The fires have been getting more violent, more aggressive. This year has been particularly strange because of COVID. I might be speculating here, but I do think that we’re losing some experience levels. Some people that have been around for a really long time, our crew bosses, they’re afraid of getting COVID so they dipped out. There’s still a lot of experience there, but it has been a strange year trying to navigate that as well as forest fires. 

But climate change is real, climate change is definitely real. The seasons are also getting longer. It used to be conducive for people to go to college in the winter and fight fires in the summer. But now, fires in California are going through November, sometimes later. So all the evidence is definitely there, and it is getting worse. It’s a shame. 

Climate change certainly is real, but it doesn’t change the fact that people treat it as a debate. How does that make you feel as someone who is literally fighting to protect the planet?

It’s excruciating, like witnessing people with science slapping them in the face. And not just science, patterns and literal smoke filling your house right now, and it’s definitely because of climate change. I don’t want to say it’s bad forest management, because all of the forest managers want to do everything that needs to be done in the forest. But funding gets cut every year without fail. It almost doesn’t matter who’s in office, it’s just constantly doing more with less. Yeah, it’s excruciating to witness that. 

What made you want to fight fires in the first place?

I started doing backcountry trail work when I was 20 or 21. I was working in the National Park Service. I’m from Illinois. So I didn’t climb a hill until I was 21 years old, I’m pretty sure. And I came out here and I was learning about fire while I was doing backcountry trails because I was working in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Sometimes a fire would break out, and it was scary. And so I was definitely interested in it, but I didn’t know that much about it from an employment standpoint. I just knew fire behavior is fascinating, fire science is fascinating, basic meteorology is fascinating. 

I got into it because I met my best friend when he was making the Pacific Crest Trail. And I was working on the Pacific Crest Trail and he was a rappeller out of eastern Oregon. He would rappel out of helicopters to fight fires. I thought that was so cool. And I moved back to Portland with him and he got me into it and helped me get a job. It wasn’t too different, they’re both male-dominated industries, you know? There’s an excitement that comes with fires that doesn’t come with trails or anything else, and I just fell in love with it. 

What made you want to have a career outdoors?

Naturally, I’m a conservationist. Fires very obviously are protecting resources, you’re also doing prescribed burns and doing things that Native communities did for hundreds of years. You’re clearing a trail so that people have the ability to access the wilderness and appreciate it because without that appreciation respect doesn’t come. Without respect, protection doesn’t come. I’m a hippie at heart. I spend all my time outdoors. I can’t imagine another life. I think it’s really important. We don’t have a lot of wilderness areas left; you don’t have a lot of resources as far as our forests left. Suburban sprawl is taking over. For whatever we have left, I will do this until the day I die.

Is there anything else you would want our readers to know, either about your line of work or about this crisis, or a combination of all that?

Help us help you, you know? Vote for the party that is going to focus on climate change, Vote for the party that is going to help us help the forest. I’m getting tired of this Republican nonsense. Do less with more? I’m so over it. We need better forest management, we need more funding, and we need more focus on mitigating the risks that comes with fire. We really need to get the right people in office to like make these calls. It’s a bigger deal and it affects all of us like without our planet, without our environment like we don’t exist — we’re just hurting ourselves.

Also, if they tell you to evacuate your house, you’re not going to save your house with a garden hose. It’s not gonna work.

Just take care of each other. Right now we have 500,000 evacuees in Oregon. If there’s something you can do, do it. People are getting displaced. Look out for each other. If there’s something you can do, do it. I’m doing all I can, but the second I get a chance like I’m gonna be donating money, and anything I can to the communities I’m involved with. We should all be doing that if we can.

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