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.
Sara Knapp is the Assistant Superintendent of the Bitterroot Interagency Hotshot Crew, based on the Bitterroot National Forest. Sara has been fighting wildland fire for 18 seasons. She is quick-witted, smart, and though short in stature, she is a physical powerhouse.
Raised in New England, Sara had no real understanding of what wildfire was until at 19, while hitchhiking across the country, she was picked up in Nevada by a seasonal wildland firefighter. She recalls that as he recounted his summer on the fire line, she was thinking, “that sounds terrible, why would anyone want to do that?” But she was also a little intrigued.
That conversation planted a seed that took root in 1998, when she decided to join a volunteer fire department. Shortly thereafter she began working on a Forest Service Type II crew on the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. She didn’t see much other than prescribed fire there, but when she experienced her first big fire, on the Fishlake National Forest in Utah, “it was the most amazing thing ever,” she reflects on the intensity of both the fire and the fight. “It was this powerful thing, it was loud, it was a rush - I was hooked.”
"[her first big fire] was the most amazing thing ever,” she reflects on the intensity of both the fire and the fight. “It was this powerful thing, it was loud, it was a rush - I was hooked.”
After working for a couple seasons on a Type II crew, Sara made the leap to the Midewin Hotshots, then the Wenatchee Rappel Crew. After three seasons there, Sara went back to working on a hotshot crew, where she has been ever since, climbing her way up through the ranks to her current position. She is one of the few women in a Type I crew supervisory role.
Most firefighters are seasonal workers, and don’t receive full benefits. It wasn’t until 2012 that the federal government began allowing seasonal wildland firefighters to opt-in to a federal health insurance program, of which a portion of the premium is covered by the federal employer. While some seasonals never intend to make a career out of firefighting, for those that do, getting a permanent position, colloquially referred to as “an appointment,” is huge. An appointment may not be year-round employment, but it does provide a guaranteed number of pay periods that you are allowed to work. And you get benefits.
In 2006, Sara got a permanent position, a “13 and 13,” (guaranteed work for 13 pay periods, and a maximum layoff of 13 pay periods). “My mom was so relieved when I finally got health insurance,” she laughs, “I knew Mom was waiting for me to settle down and get a real job. The appointment helped that. My family is supportive, but, other than my Dad who followed along on Inciweb, they don’t really understand what it is I do, or why I do it… but my siblings are in emergency service professions, so they do understand the service aspect.”
So why does she do it? Not only does fire hold a fascination for her, but firefighters, especially hotshot crew members, who spend weeks or months away from their home base, are escapists, Sara claims. Fire provides a way to “get away from real life, it’s an opportunity to get away from all the mundane, routine things that you have to do when you’re an adult,” Sara laughs.
Another reason Sara keeps going back fire season after fire season is because she is now in a position to make a difference: to train the next generation of wildland firefighter and teach them fundamentals and pass on her knowledge of essential lessons on safety, leadership, and fire culture. She believes there is an opportunity for the job should be fulfilling and fun.
She also wants to convey to the firefighters she is supervising how important it is to acknowledge that everyone on the crew brings something to the table, that those strengths should be encouraged and used, and that working to make your weaknesses your strengths is essential to doing the job well.
And while she has been subjected to being talked over, her biggest regret is a fire season in which she was guilty of doing the same thing to some individuals she was supervising. “I was so caught up in trying to overcome my own challenges and find my own voice, I muted someone on my squad, and it caused a big blow-up. Looking back, I realized I did him a real disservice, that he had talents that I wasn’t recognizing or respecting. I wish I could tell him that now.”
Her other advice is above all else, maintain a sense of humor. “If you can’t laugh at things anymore—particularly yourself-- you should get out,” she warns.
While she is still laughing, Sara is reflective when she talks about her future. It is becoming increasingly hard for her to leave her life in North Central Washington to spend the fire season traveling around the country, eating smoke, building line and leading her crew in conducting burn-out operations. “Sure, I’d like to become a superintendent at some point…but I don’t know if I want to retire as a hotshot. It’s hard to say.”
Her advice to other up and coming women is that, like in many male dominated professions, females need to work harder and smarter to be heard and respected in the wildland fire world, but that persistence and hard work will pay off, and that confidence can be learned.
“You spend a lot of time beating your head against the wall, but once you realize you have the ability to change the way you deliver the message, to communicate in a way that is different than how you might have learned to [as a female], and you learn not to be intimidated, there is a shift and people start listening.”
Learn more about Sara 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.