Queen of Fire | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Queen of Fire 

A Millcreek resident advising the city on a wildfire plan, draws on a wealth of experience.

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1982 ZigZag Hotshots group shot. - U.S. FOREST SERVICE
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • 1982 ZigZag Hotshots group shot.

When Eileen Grace looks out the office window in her home overlooking the Wasatch Mountains, she doesn't so much admire the steep slopes, with their rich green lines of trees and meadows climbing up the east benches, as view them with trepidation. To her eyes, they represent, "a very high wildland-urban interface," meaning that nature and homes are smacked up against each other and the potential for a wildland fire engulfing the fledgling city's houses is all too apparent.

One of the early female federal wildland firefighters in the late 1970s, based primarily in the Pacific West, she breaks down fire's behavior into simple elements: "Fire has a tendency to go uphill, a tendency to go the way the wind is blowing, and it will get big if it has enough to burn. To a wildfire, a housing development looks like 9,000 tons [of fuel] per acre."

With Millcreek incorporated as a city this past January, one responsibility it will take from Salt Lake County is developing a community-protection plan for wildland fires—a lengthy process involving public education, preparation and mitigation of potential wildland fire threats. Unified Fire Authority Battalion Chief Riley Pilgrim says Grace, as an adviser, brings a "unique perspective. She understands fire behavior; she understands the risks present in Millcreek."

Grace's 14-year wildland firefighting career at the U.S. Forest Service underscores both her fascination with the seasonal, uninsured occupation, and how gender discrimination dogged some women in the field. The problem has continued since she quit federal wildland firefighting, she says, pointing to a December 2016 survey by nonprofit education group Association for Fire Ecology. Out of 342 respondents, 54 percent reported observing gender discrimination, while 44 percent reported experiencing it firsthand. The majority of respondents who experienced sexual harassment didn't report it.

"The report was horrifying to me, but what is more horrifying to me, after all this work, all this time, [women] are not standing up for themselves, not taking it upon themselves," Grace says. "They want to create this gender-neutralized bureaucracy, but it's not realistic. Let knowing how to get along with wildfire be the driver."

click to enlarge Former federal firefighter Eileen Grace in her Millcreek home. - STEPHEN DARK
  • Stephen Dark
  • Former federal firefighter Eileen Grace in her Millcreek home.

The Utah divisions of Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Forestry, Fire & State Lands provide 75 percent of the wildland firefighters on call each season. While more emphasis has been put on hiring women to fight wildland fires both at the state and federal level, the efforts haven't shifted the historic levels of approximately 10 percent women on crews. Jason Curry, the state's public information officer for Forestry, Fire & State Lands, says they've seen more female hires and applicants in recent years for seasonal work. But the back-breaking, physically demanding nature of the job, he speculates, "makes it a hard environment to work in if you're a female." Out of three 20-person crews and one eight-person crew, each has one or two women at most. Since 2006, to Curry's knowledge, there have been no sexual harassment or Equal Employment Opportunity complaints filed relating to wildland fire crews.

UFA's Pilgrim, who met his wife fighting wildland fires, acknowledges that it's a male-dominated career with many "Type A male personalities who tend to be reluctant when it comes to trusting females." He's been involved in firefighting since 2000, and says the treatment of women as well as opportunities available for them have improved, with male resistance much less common than it used to be.

Grace's career was built on the idea that gender was irrelevant. It was simply about who could do the job best. A child abuse survivor, she believes fire picked her in some primal way. "I had something to prove to myself, to my father, to my perpetrators. I make a poor victim; I fight back." At the same time, she says, "You've got to stay humble in the face of fire, but that humility I lent to fire I did not lend to my male counterparts."

Grace started as a firefighter in rural Oregon in 1977 when she was 19, joining an initial attack crew in the Barlow Ranger District. "They were paying a dollar more an hour than the Payless drug store," where she sold cosmetics. When Grace attended a week of fire school training, she walked into a room of "250 guys, and then there's me." She worked with a small group of Vietnam vets, whom she recalls as mostly "tolerant and protective."

If initial attack crews are akin to the first responders of wildland fires, interagency hotshot ones are among the elite of wildland firefighters, ready to be dispatched anywhere in the country. Grace set her cap at joining such a crew. The U.S. Forest Service was embroiled in a discrimination lawsuit filed in 1973, which ultimately led to a consent decree mandating that there had to be more women on federal wildland crews. When she and the initial attack crew were dispatched to a late season fire in Northern California, she applied to join the local virtuoso team. "They told me I had to hire a girl and a n——-," a supervisor informed her. She didn't get the job.

She then signed up with the Mt. Hood, Oregon-based ZigZag Hotshots as a late season fill-in in 1980 and was rehired in 1981. Already a record-setting marathon swimmer, Grace trained even harder before joining ZigZag, to make sure she was just as fit as any of her counterparts. Being a peak endurance athlete, however, inevitably put her in conflict with men who questioned having women in their ranks.

"If a guy is going to define himself doing something a girl can't do, what does that mean about him as a man if a woman comes along who can do it the same or better?" Grace asks. "That's where the rage—the contempt—comes from."

She learned how much animosity there could be working at another hotshot crew when she was made squad boss in the middle of a fire, six weeks after she joined. Three men, she says, walked off the fire, refusing to work for a woman.

Juli Bradley, who lives near Portland, fought wildland fires with Grace as her squad boss for a year in 1986. "She took me under her wing," she says. "I learned how tough I could be." While she only did two years fighting wildland fires, "I know who I am because of fire. Because of that job, I feel sure and confident about myself."

Grace's nickname was "Hell bitch," taken from Larry McMurtry's classic novel, Lonesome Dove. "You had to earn the right to say it to my face." She says she had "a savant relationship with fire," something she shared to some degree with her supervisor, legendary firefighter Paul Gleason, whom she married in 1987. "We were both in love with fire. Nobody else would talk to me like that, nobody else would hear what I have to say, my ideas. I was insatiable to understand how does fire really behave."

While there were seven women on her crew—"BMWs, burly mountain women," she says—Grace was tough on them as squad boss; too tough, Gleason told her. "I ran off more women than men who didn't belong on the hotshot crew. I wasn't going to lower the bar for boobs. If you're going to come on my hotshot crew, it's not going to be because of boobs. I kept the bar as high as it can possibly be for everybody who wanted to wear a ZigZag Hotshots T-shirt. I didn't think we could afford to have women there who were noticeably less capable."

Grace went on to develop other careers in occupational therapy and fire consulting, but her passion for fire remains unbowed. Even beyond that, though, she says, there is one fundamental that never changes in fighting wildland fires, be it in Oregon or Utah: "I just want everybody to go home for dinner," she says.

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