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Teen Girls Learn Skills and Leadership at Firefighting Camp


TACOMA, Wash. – An old Mercury Grand Marquis lies mangled on the grounds of the Tacoma Fire Department Training Center, its roof shorn away and its windshield folded over like a piece of crinkled cellophane.

The perpetrators: a group of teenage girls. The wreckage was collateral damage from a vehicle extrication exercise at Camp Blaze, a firefighting camp for 16- to 19-year-old females taking place this week at fire training centers in North Bend and on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

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The young women hacked into the car with pairs of oversized scissors, then pried it open as they simulated removing a person from a burning vehicle.

The camp is run by female professional firefighters with the goal of helping young women into similar careers.

It teaches girls specific firefighting skills, including how to lower oneself from upper-story windows using a rope, how to handle a hose and how to climb an aerial ladder on a fire engine.

The girls also practice search-and-rescue skills with a dummy, use chain saws to cut through wood and learn to work while wearing up to a 100 pounds of gear. And they get to fight a live fire.

About 50 female firefighters from around the nation are volunteering at the camp this week as counselors and administrative helpers.

They’re there to help show the girls that firefighting is a viable career option for women, said Karen Kerr, a San Francisco firefighter who helped found the camp in 2001.

“It’s really inspiring being around people that aren’t big muscle guys, but have the same limitations as you.” said camper Kayela Cant, 16, of Weiser, Idaho. “They understand that when you’re dirty, you want to take a shower.”

Though the first female career firefighters were hired in 1973, only about 2 percent of the 300,000 firefighters in the United States and Canada today are women.

“There aren’t always people encouraging young women to go into it,” Kerr said. “It’s a physically demanding job, and it’s still predominantly men. We want to create opportunities in the fire service because we know there were pioneering women who did that for us.”

The camp received about 70 applicants this year and accepted 24.

One, 19-year-old Martina Jelvinger, flew in from her home city of Stockholm, Sweden, to attend.

Jelvinger, who wants to work as an engineer to make buildings more fire-resistant, said she found out about the camp on the Internet and decided to apply.

Camp directors look for girls and young women with leadership skills and try to choose ones with different levels of firefighting experience, Kerr said.

Some campers haven’t ever held a hose or ridden in a fire engine before. Others, like Cant, have worked at junior volunteer departments in their hometowns.

Cant said Camp Blaze provides a different set of opportunities from what she gets to do in Weiser. She said she often learns about different pieces of equipment but doesn’t actually get to use them.

“I’m allowed to do everything here that I’m not allowed to do at home,” said Cant, who particularly likes using the chain saws and power tools. “The difference between seeing them used and using them is that it’s much more exciting – it gets you pumped up.”

While the campers hail from all directions, some are local. Ariassa Wilson, 16, plays basketball at Tacoma’ Foss High School and decided to attend the camp to see if she wanted to pursue firefighting as a career.

Three days into the weeklong camp, she decided that she does.

“Getting in and accepted to this camp when you know they don’t just accept anybody meant something,” she said. “I knew it had to be some sort of sign this was my calling.”

She struggled at first with rappelling from a fifth-story window, but tried a second time and conquered her nerves, she said. Now those tense moments are what she finds most appealing about becoming a firefighter.

“It’s not like playing basketball and just running out there,” Wilson said. “Your life is at stake. You’re not playing around. It’s really eye-opening.” The camp is funded through private donations, some of them from local firefighter unions, such as International Association of Fire Fighters Local 31 in Tacoma and IAFF Local 21 in Seattle.

The program costs about $1,000 per camper, and donations pay almost the entire cost. Campers are responsible for only a $25 application fee and their travel expenses.

The female firefighter volunteers usually use vacation time to help with Camp Blaze, Kerr said.

Kris Larson, a 17-year-veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, said it’s worth it.

“It’s not so much a fire camp as a fun, leadership and fire camp,” Larson said. “More than giving them knowledge of the fire services, this is giving them the confidence to know that if they want to do something, they really can achieve it. Even if they don’t become firefighters, they’ll take that with them forever.”

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