Female Firefighters Do Good Job

The Mail Star, Halifax, Canada, Friday, September 28, 1973
By Mike Silverman

NAPA, Calif: (AP) -- The nine housewives who form northern California's first female fire crew are doing a far better job than the men they replaced, says their boss.

"It's the difference between night and day," said Norman Silver, state forest ranger in charge of volunteer fire training for Napa County.

For six months the women - ranging in age from late 20s to mid 40s - have been responding to the brushfires that break out several times a week during the dry summer. They live in the remote wooded canyons eight miles west of town.

When a call comes, they deposit their children at the neighbors', don fire gear and head for the trucks.

"They're really aggressive fire fighters and work together beautifully," said Silver. "Just the other day they kept a redwood fire down to six acres that easily could have spread to 50 by the time paid crews came in from Napa."

Silver said the idea of using housewives on fire lines arose because the male volunteers often were miles away at work when dangerous fires broke out.

"The men weren't very dependable," Silver said. "They saw it mostly as a social group, and there was a lot of competing for leadership. Nothing was getting done."

One reason the women respond with greater urgency than the men is that they've been at home through the years when these fires break out and seen what they can do," Silver said. "The men normally get home from work after they were contained."

Bea Hencke, who helped organize the crew, agreed. "It puts the fear of God into you, to see the mountain across from your house go up in flames," she said.

Mrs. Hencke said she enjoys the work. But she added: "It can be tiring, especially working under tension. It takes a lot of stamina to get home from three hours on a fire and still have to feed the family and round up the kids from the neighborhood."

The women underwent 4 1/2 months of training before going on their first real fire, and still report weekly for three hours' drill. They all know how to operate the equipment, which includes a new 15-ton tanker fire engine and a 1946 pumper.

"It can be pretty messy and dirty work at times, especially; putting firelines up those steep hillsides," said Vera Schaubin, 43.

"You don't have any confidence in this at first," Mrs. Schaublin says. "But all of a sudden, it dawns on you that you can operate this equipment. Suddenly you know what you thought you could never possibly know."

"We're a very determined group. Everybody works every job: driving, running the pumps, using the ladders, manning the hoses, using our portable pump to get water out of pools or creeks. Now we're very sure that we can get the trucks to any danger and keep them in operation."

"They're beautiful," says Silver. "The Men weren't very dependable," Silver went on. "They have other responsibilities. The gals have added a lot of stability to this department."

"We had a training fire on the Silverado Trail recently, a house that was donated to us. The women put out eight fires in that building. Eight times the women drove up, not knowing where the place would be burning, and got it out."

"Then it was the men's turn. The fire got away from them and the place burned to the ground."