To Save Homes

The Denver Post, January 4, 1975

"This Isn't Women's Lib, this is just common sense." With that remark, Mrs. Joyce Bowen, captain of the fire-fighting crew in a mountainous area of Northern California, starts to describe how her team of 10 female firemen formed a volunteer unit. A big, 15-ton fire truck sits in her driveway ready to roll as soon as other housewives in the area can respond to the alarm.

A mother of two, Mrs. Bowen lives in the high country, about 10 miles by winding roads to the nearest town, Napa. Houses are isolated and the whole area of forest and grassland can go up like a tinderbox. Adds Mrs. Bowen, "We all want to preserve our homes and our neighbors' as well as the forest, so we decided to do the job our men couldn't do. All the girls around here can drive pickup trucks and we can drive fire trucks, too."

The 10-member female volunteer unit started about two years ago. Mrs. Bea Henke, whose husband is head of all volunteer firemen, explains that "the situation was really ridiculous. During the week nearly all the men were away at work, at least a half hour's drive away. Our regular fire truck driver was a man, but he was seriously ill and couldn't get out of bed most times. So when an alarm came over the Forestry Radio, I had to stand at the roadside like a hitchhiker and try to flag down a man to drive the truck. We needed a way to respond to fires faster than that."

Gradually, the volunteer ladies began to attend practice burns with their male counterparts and then started intensive training under the tutelage of Norman Silver, a fire fighter with 20 years experience with state units. Now, when an alarm comes through on radios inside their homes, the volunteer women first rush their youngsters to neighbors who take care of them, then don their gear and either dash to the nearest truck or wait for it to come down the road to pick them up.

They have been trained to handle all the normal apparatus plus special equipment to fight forest blazes. So far, they've put out several fires that might have spread to major proportions if the response had been delayed. And at practice sessions, they've out-done the male volunteers in controlling fires.

Says Mrs. Bowen, "We've got a lot more security than we used to have, and a lot of confidence in ourselves."