This post is part of a series that is a companion to the feature article in Your National Forests Summer/Fall 2017. Get to know the women featured in the article a bit more through this series.
Molly Day’s favorite National Forest is the Stanislaus, and she’s devoted her career to it. Molly’s first exposure to fire began in a city fire department while she was still in high school in California. She was offered positions in structural firefighting, but she believed that the offers were made based on her gender, rather than her ability to do capably do the job. “I didn’t want to be hired just to fill a quota,” Molly emphatically states.
Her battalion chief mentioned wildland firefighting to her, but while she found it intriguing, she thought she would face the same situation, and being a token female wasn’t a position she wanted to be in. She didn’t revisit the possibility of a career in wildland fire until several years later. She had friends working as seasonal firefighters, and when she heard about their experiences, it rekindled her interest and she decided to try a season working on a Forest Service engine.
Molly recounts how scared she was on her first fire, as part of the engine crew – her confidence was low and she was surrounded by older and more experienced “crusty characters.” She recalls, “It was nerve wracking initially trying to prove myself.” But Molly has been lucky to have great support from her supervisors and co-workers throughout her career. “I was pushed in a healthy way by the folks whose opinion mattered to me, both men and women. They were hard on me, but at times they also knew better than me sometimes what I could do.” Now, a couple of decades later, Molly is still working in the world of wildfire.
“It was nerve wracking initially trying to prove myself."
After several years on an engine, Molly applied for the Stanislaus Hotshot Crew, despite being in a relationship with someone who didn’t take her goal to be a hotshot seriously. Molly laughs about it now, “If you want me to overcome challenge, tell me that I can’t do it.” Molly was hired, and she kept going back season after season. She put in her time and after several seasons she worked up to a permanent squad boss role, a position she served in for seven years.
Molly’s crew was a tight-knit one. “We were close, and gender wasn’t important.” At one point, there were four women on the crew. “One of the other women was our crew’s strongest and fastest hiker – while I’m not a great hiker, I never give up. My position was leading the back squad. I liked being in the back of the line, being quality control, paying attention to detail, watching our back.”
Molly relates, “I don’t fit that mental picture that most people have of a typical firefighter.” In fact, before she began fighting fire, Molly was a manicurist. But this unique background made her an asset to the crew in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. “That experience taught me the importance of maintaining your tools, keeping your tools sharp, with a clean edge. You can’t do the job as well and as fast if your tools aren’t in good shape. It’s kind of a metaphor for life. So I was meticulous about tool maintenance for our crew. Even today, I’ll hear the sound of someone sharping a tool -- and you can tell by the sound if somebody doesn’t know what they are doing – it makes me cringe, and I just can’t help it, I have to show them how to do it right!”
Thinking back on her experience with the hotshot crew, Molly recounts that her favorite part you the job was burnout operations. “I loved those big firing shows, when you and the crew just become another force of nature.” She adds with a laugh, “I also liked using the saw, being a sawyer … though I didn’t get my hands on it very often.”
“I thought I was just going to be a temp, but now, 20 years later and here I am. I only have four years until I’m eligible to retire. Now I’m one of those crusty old characters!”
Molly is now a mom to a 5 year old and she has moved into a position in fire prevention. On her National Forest, she stands out as one of the women who have been in a fire career the longest. “I would probably still be on front lines if not for my family – being on a hotshot crew, with all the time away from home is not a family-friendly position.” But she is proud of the fact that she can demonstrate to her daughter what hard work is and “that a woman is capable of doing that hard work too.”
Molly reflects that having done the work that she has and having tough experiences to look back on “makes things that come up now in my life easier, as I think back and realize I’ve done much harder things.” Molly is still somewhat surprised by the course her life has taken. “I thought I was just going to be a temp, but now, 20 years later and here I am. I only have four years until I’m eligible to retire. Now I’m one of those crusty old characters!”
Learn more about Molly and the world about wildland firefighting in the feature article, "Drawn to Flame: Women Forged by WildFire" in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Your National Forests.