Women are in the firefight.
In what was one of the last bastions of professional patriarchy, the welcome mat is now unfurled at the doors of all volunteer fire departments (VFDs).
The Cariboo Regional District has 14 VFDs, plus Wells has a brigade, and Hixon is close as well.
The towns of Quesnel, 100 Mile House and Williams Lake have a hybrid fire department – the size of the municipality requiring a mix of a few paid and a large force of volunteer firefighters. Quesnel is where we find the area’s highest-ranked female blaze battler, Kirby Booker, who is a full-time career member of the fire department and also the fire inspector. She attained this level on May 17, 2021, after joining the QVFD in 2015.
Women are not strangers to these departments. Most if not all have had a number of females on the roster over the years, but they are relatively recent years.
Even on the larger stage, glass ceilings are still being broken.
Only this past September, the Delta Fire Rescue Department had its first all-female shift crew (three working as a unit during that work period, randomly assigned together). There were no fires that night, but they did deliver a baby.
It was only six years ago that Karen Fry became the first woman to chief the Nanaimo Fire Department, and two years ago she became the first woman to chief the Vancouver Fire Department.
B.C.’s first career female firefighter is Sheila Kirkwood, who got hired at the Whistler Fire Department 30 years ago.
“I’m heartened by how many women are choosing the fire service as a rewarding career. We are rising through the ranks, affecting change and there is no question that we belong,” Kirkwood told the BC Professional Firefighters’ Association during last year’s International Women’s Day celebrations.
It was 2015 when Katie Gordon became this area’s first paid female firefighter, at the Prince George Fire Rescue Service.
“I am currently the only female career firefighter in PG but there are many women in the volunteer departments in the surrounding area. I believe Salmon Valley Fire Department is 90 per cent women,” Gordon said.
The Wells brigade also has a high percentage of women, and their recently former chief was Caroline “Lina” Austin.
Michelle Meeker is chief at Forest Grove VFD.
Barb Bachmeier is not the chief of her Bouchie Lake VFD, but she is the elected director for Area B at the Cariboo Regional District table. In 2019 she earned that service’s Firefighter of the Year and received a Fire Services Exemplary Service Medal.
Bachmeier got her start on the fire brigades in Barkerville and Wells in 1994, then moved to Bouchie Lake the following year.
“We have several women firefighters in our halls,” she said. “Many women have stay-at-home jobs and would be much more readily available during the day. Some have regular jobs but so do men. Many employers like their employees to be firefighters as it gives them another valuable skill set. All equipment and training is free and enhances the individual’s qualifications and this can make them even more employable.”
Once you’re in, the training and teamwork just grows, said Bachmeier, and you can specialize or lean into certain aptitudes.
“One thing to learn is that even if you are not as strong as your male cohorts there are ways to use leverage to get the job done,” she said. “That is the key to any job or occupation really.”
One of the reasons those who get paid are referred to as “career” firefighters and not “professional” firefighters is even those on volunteer crews are professional. The training is to the same certifications either way. Many career firefighters start out in VFDs to get their credentials, and a lot of experiences, before applying for one of the city departments.
Forestry firefighting, search and rescue, paramedics and policing are also paths that attract those who started out in VFDs and vice versa.
“What I would tell a young girl dreaming of being a firefighter is that it’s not an impossible dream,” Bachmeier said. “We have a Junior Firefighter Program (you have to be 16 years of age – good for school credits, I understand) and that they should apply to the nearest fire department in their area. They would have to find out when weekly practices are held.”
Katie Gordon encouraged girls in Grade 11 or 12 to check out the Camp Ignite summer training opportunity where girls from all over the province get together for four days in the Lower Mainland to get an orientation in the firefighting elements.
There is a website for Camp Ignite, and Gordon also recommended looking up the Fire Service Women BC page on Facebook.
“Basically, being a firefighter is fun,” said Bachmeier. “There is lots to learn, many skills to acquire, friendships to be made, and working as a well-oiled team is the most exhilarating feeling anyone can enjoy.”