A week at North Bend’s fire training facility helps teen girls from around the country discover more about themselves as they explore a challenging career idea.
A week ago, Lexi Starets-Foote didn’t know the first thing about staring down a live fire.
She’d never worn the suit, held a fire hose or strapped on an oxygen tank.
But on Friday, her weeklong, all-girls firefighters camp put her and her campmates up to the challenge of extinguishing flames soaring from two cars, albeit in a controlled environment.
At Camp Blaze, 24 campers get free room and board for a week at the Washington State Patrol’s Fire Training Academy in North Bend. While there, they receive instruction from dozens of professional firefighters from around the country.
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The main objective?
“Seeing girls that are very shy kind of open up and grow,” senior crew leader Kris Larson said. “We push them to do a lot of stuff. We push them past their fears, we push them through their fears. The growth that they see in a short week, a lot of times their parents say ‘It’s not the same girl that we dropped off.’ ”
Before the camp, Starets-Foote, 16, wasn’t sure if firefighting could be in her future, but with one day before the camp’s graduation, she said it’s now a profession she would like to pursue.
“I love it — I didn’t really think I would want to go into this type of career, but I like it a lot,” said Starets-Foote, of Whidbey Island. “I know that I’ve gained more confidence. I think I can go home and be more confident with myself.”
When they arrive, campers are split into four groups. One was called the Hotwings, known for walking around and clucking.
For Sara Erickson, of Blaine, the camp helped her develop communication skills she plans on using every day.
“I learned that communication is such an important thing,” she said. “No one wants to be with someone heading into a fire that doesn’t have good communication skills. I learned that I need to talk more.”
The beginning of the week introduced the girls to the suits firefighters wear, and the middle of the week featured studying live fire. Friday was the grand finale, when the groups take turns fighting fires. They are accompanied by professional firefighters and instructors standing by for guidance.
Confidence is a main focus of the camp, which sets out to empower young women in a field typically dominated by men.
According to data from the National Fire Protection Agency, fewer than 4 percent of firefighters were women from 2008-2012.
With that disparity, female firefighters face challenges in earning respect.
“You really have to prove yourself,” said Amanda Butler, a former camper and current fire crew leader from Oregon. “You have to show them that, ‘Hey, I’m a girl but I can do anything that you can do.’ I may do it differently, but I can still do the job. That’s the hardest part.”
That stigma is something the camp addresses, helping campers develop a mentality that they can accomplish far more than they originally imagined.
“This camp prepares them for that,” said Butler, 27. “It shows them that they can do whatever they want to do — no matter how big they are, how small they are, how strong you are, you can do it. You can head-to-head with the dudes, and do anything.”
While the camp is one step, the work of empowering female firefighters is far from done, Larson said. The key, she said, is boosting the number of female firefighters.
“I think doors are opening, but when you get to nontraditional jobs, there’s still a stigma,” Larson said. “Once you get to that number which is the critical mass, which is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, then the attitude starts to change. But until you get that critical mass, nothing changes, because you’re still kind of the anomaly.”