When people think of firefighters, they might picture people firing water at burning buildings or pulling cats out of trees. Wildland firefighters, however, often don’t go near buildings at all – they’re working in the remote backcountry, helping control possibly hundreds of thousands of acres of burning trees, bushes, and anything else the fire can reach. The goal, ultimately, is to prevent these fires from getting near homes or towns and doing damage.
Because this activity often occurs in remote areas, most folks never see wildland firefighters like retired hotshot Estella Coffey at work. They’d never know she was one of the somewhat rare women who chose this arduous, sometimes backbreaking, but incredibly fulfilling vocation as her way to make a difference in the world.
Estella gave Nongirly a glimpse into the world of the wildland firefighter – and more specifically the female firefighter, who has to fight more than one battle to succeed in this career. She shared her journey from the Coast Guard to one of the most elite and respected firefighting positions in the country – the hotshot. She also spoke about her experiences as she grew more senior in her career, including the gender-related barriers to growth she encountered, and the internal and external cultural expectations that contributed to those barriers.
The most important lesson Estella shared, however, actually has nothing to do with firefighting and everything to do with just old-fashioned personal growth: always be honest and true to yourself, and you can never go wrong.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a wildland firefighter – when and how did you decide that was going to be your thing?
I had just gotten out of the military [the Coast Guard] in Oregon. I was doing some traveling around and was looking at what would be the next chapter in my life. I ran into some friends in Portland, and one introduced me to working for the Forest Service, with a trail crew with Mount Hood National Forest. And that was pretty fun. I mean, I kind of liked this military type of life in a way, you know – uniforms and structure. So, I started working on a trail crew for the summer, and throughout the summer there was this big group of people coming in – men and women in uniforms – and I wondered, what are those people? And they were wildland firefighters – the Zigzag hotshots. I thought – well, THAT’s what I want to do, so the next year I applied for this and was hired. It’s pretty rare to get a first-year firefighting job on a hotshot crew, which is an elite crew. And boy, was I hooked.
We had what might have been the only female superintendent of a hotshot crew at the time running the crew. Getting on with her was a good deal because she believed in a diversity of women and men on crews. She was also very hard on her folks, too. They had to prove themselves over and over again, and I get that. So that first year on fire was 1994, and it was one of the biggest years we’ve had. And that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was very hard work, a lot of camaraderie, a lot of travel. It just fit me.
Let’s back up a little bit. What did your interest in the military/emergency response stem from?
I was a big fan of M.A.S.H. growing up. I loved M.A.S.H. I mean, I’d get in trouble for staying up and watching it… I’d sneak out of my bedroom because my parents were watching it – so I think that had something to do with it. Then I remember the [emergency services departments in my town] put on a disaster drill and they needed victims. I was in junior high, maybe even in elementary, and so we went to the elementary school and I had fake blood all over me so the
ambulance could do a drill on us. That always stuck with me. I knew at that point that I was going to be something in the medical field. When I finished training for the Coast Guard, I had to make a decision either to stay in the Coast Guard, and do what I was going to do there, or move on and do something else.
I knew by that point I that was a gay woman in the military, and that was right there timing-wise with Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ruling for the military. [Being openly gay] was still not very cool and I was starting to feel a little pressure from my commanding officer and was dealing with some hazing from some of the guys in the Coast Guard that got me to the point where I thought, I don’t know if I want to stay in this and not be able to live who I am. And I decided it was time to get out. At that point, my goal was to be a flight paramedic, and then I got sucked into fire. I ended up really liking fire, so I didn’t follow that initial dream.
What has your experience been like as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, and in a supervisor role?
I think when I was a hotshot I had good people around me, and good supportive crews around me that didn’t really see me as a woman squad leader, or a woman acting foreman running the crew. They saw me as a firefighter. That’s what you hope – that’s what any of us hope. So, I didn’t feel there was a ceiling for me in the hotshots, but it took its toll on me physically, and emotionally, mentally. I mean, it’s a lot of hours spent away from just normal life on a shot crew, and it was starting to consume who I was as a person.
So, I decided to go [work] engines. I thought well, it’ll be just as fun. Well, it is in its own way, but that’s where I found the ceiling started closing in on me. After 21 years, I was a captain on an engine, and I couldn’t seem to break through to the next level. It was just that the support [from my supervisors] wasn’t there, to move up higher.
Do you believe that leadership roles in fire are gender-biased?
…There’s the same amount of [career growth] struggle for men and women up to a certain point because we’re all doing the same job, and fire doesn’t know if you’re a man or a woman… After a certain point [in your career, growth] gets very difficult, in my opinion. And just by conversing with the limited number of women in leadership roles in fire, the struggle really starts once you get to that point where you’re in a competitive status among males at the same level; it becomes very difficult for women to push past that and become an assistant fire management officer. There are very few in [women leaders] the Forest Service. So, I think it’s gender biased for sure.
What are other gender-biased challenges that female firefighters face on an everyday basis?
I’m a captain, been a captain for ten years, and then we got this other captain that’s been a captain for ten years, and I’m female and he’s male. I could see him able to sit in the truck and do paperwork where I would have to be out busting my butt, making sure I’m working right alongside the crew, so I don’t get tagged as lazy. It’s kind of messed up in my mind. It gets tiring and old for sure, loses some of that appeal…women have to prove themselves every single day, when once the male firefighter has proven themselves, they’ve got a free ride for quite a while. But every day a woman has to get up and prove herself all over again.
[This] behavior is mostly internal culture [to the Forest Service], but it can be external, too. …When I was driving my fire engine, most of the time I always had a male counterpart – my assistant, who I think was always male – and if someone came up to ask a question, whether it be a reporter or someone on the line, they would automatically go to the to the male side of the vehicle.
What important lessons have you learned that you wish you’d known when you started firefighting?
This is always difficult and I found it to be more difficult the younger you are, but always follow who you are inside and never go against your own values to please or get a job or work somewhere. Follow your values and morals. But then don’t stick it out in a place that may not be a fit for you. There’s plenty of firefighting jobs throughout the nation, and there’s tons of great people out there working in this organization…if you’re struggling, move on and reach out, and reach out to the other women. And support women in fire, because that’s the only way I believe that women are going to continue to stay in wildland firefighting is if we support each other and give each other that hand up. Because it is a struggle. But it’s a struggle that’s well worth it.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Always be true to yourself, be honest with yourself, and be honest with other people. Honesty goes a long way in life and in work, and in everything you do, and as soon as you lose that and you start down that road of trying to please people, trying to do things and say things that aren’t true to you, you’re going to lose yourself and lose who you are as a person. At the end of the day, you always have who you are, and you know your own truth. Don’t ever sell that to anybody.
That’s the only thing you have that nobody can take, is your integrity and who you are as a person. Real people see real people. People who are genuine are the good people that you want to surround yourself with and support and ask for support.
I never wanted to be a yes man – there’s plenty of yes men in this industry. Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for what’s right, standing up for the person that doesn’t have a voice – that’s all very important. That’s the way I lead, and that’s the way I’ve always taught the folks under me to lead, is to be a good human being first. Firefighting is just a job.