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Fire in the Blood 

Warm Springs women carry on a family firefighting tradition

click to enlarge Karlen Yallup (left) and her mother Yvette Leecy, both firefighters, look out over a singed Warm Springs.

Erin Rook

Karlen Yallup (left) and her mother Yvette Leecy, both firefighters, look out over a singed Warm Springs.

Yvette Leecy walks through the fire camp like it's her home—and in many ways, it is. She stops to greet the crew serving meals to firefighters, grabbing a sack lunch and asking how long they've been working fires. Some are relatives, others are coworkers, none are strangers.

It's this knack for working with people—combined with a fierce determination and indefatigable spirit—that has helped the Warm Springs native fight an addiction to meth and alcohol, and to become a sought-after wildland firefighter and timber sales officer. Where meth once coursed through her veins, fire now lives.

After coming home from nearly two years of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, Yvette felt hopeless. How would she get back on her feet without a driver's license or a job? Her brothers—who worked on the hot shot and engine crews—suggested she give firefighting a try. It wasn't long before she was hooked.

"It's a spiritual and emotional state for me," Yvette says. "I actually want to be a part of teaching the tribe with my daughters that treating the ground is important because then it brings back our healthful berries; it brings back our vegetation."

Once she'd been out of treatment for three years, she tried to regain custody of her children—two daughters and a son—who'd been in the care of family since she went into treatment. But the judge told her she would have to choose between the new career that gave her a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and the three children she loved and missed.

"I was approached by courts to step down from fire management, take my kids full time, or leave them in my mom's care," Yvette recalls. "When you fight fire, you can't be distracted, your focus needs to be 100 percent on that, or 100 percent on being a parent. The court didn't think I could do both."

If she had been a single father, Yvette notes, the outcome would have likely been different. Still, she transferred to a job in forestry, where she could at least continue to work with the forest, and focused on continuing her education and raising her children.

"It was very emotional," she says. "My passion for firefighting grew inside me. I felt like this was my purpose—to fight for Mother Earth."

Now that her children are grown, Yvette has been able to fight the occasional fire while continuing to work in forestry and on completing her degree. Most recently, she was part of the initial attack on the County Line 2 Fire, and only took a break to spend time with her daughter Karlen, a 23-year-old student at the University of Idaho who is studying forestry and fire ecology—and, not coincidentally, spent the summer fighting fires in Arizona, but had a rare week of downtime before returning to her senior year.

Yes, that's right: Yvette is not the only female firefighter in the family. Both of her daughters, Karlen and Yolanda Yallup, are following in their mother's footsteps. Yolanda is currently fighting the complex of fires in the Spokane area that recently claimed the lives of three firefighters. The single mother is also studying forestry at Central Oregon Community College between fires.

But, for Yvette, the education and inspiration flows both ways, and she says she is actually the one following their lead by returning to school to learn more about the science behind forestry and fire management.


Though Yvette's extended family has a significant presence in the fire management field, female firefighters are still few and far between. Warm Springs Fire Management Officer Trey Leonard doesn't know for sure how many women are currently fighting fires with his crews. After Yvette starts naming names, the two estimate about five of the almost 90 firefighters on Warm Springs crews are female.

But even at just over 5 percent, that's still more representation than can be found in, say, the Bend Fire Department, where only one firefighter is female—Fire Captain Trish Connelly, who became Bend's first woman firefighter when she joined the department in 2002. Nationally, women represent just 3.7 percent of firefighters.

Bend Fire Chief Larry Langston says the low number of hires is directly related to how few women apply and turn out for testing. Of the 27,719 candidates tested by National Testing Network last year, Langston says just 5 percent of the candidates were women. Of the 121 tested in Bend, just two were female.

"Our firefighter physical demands are high; quite frankly, there are few women who can perform them safely," Langston says. "That probably is the biggest barrier for women; but a few are strong enough."

To become a wildland firefighter, candidates generally must complete what's called a "pack test," in which they hike three miles in 45 minutes while wearing a 45-pound pack. But, as Yvette points out, the demands of the job can be tougher than what the test covers. Smoke jumpers, who parachute out of planes to address fires in remote places, may carry up to 130 pounds in their packs.

Langston says the Bend Fire Department is making efforts to increase the number of female firefighters, but lowering the physical requirements isn't one of them.

"I have seen a lack of females in structural fire departments," Langston says. "Similar to most structural departments we have not lowered our physical entrance requirements; they are the same for men and women."

Instead, Bend Fire has hired a handful of women to staff its new ambulance transport program, which Langston hopes will give them first-hand knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a firefighter. The department also hosts a summer program called Camp Fire Ax.

"The Camp is a week of orientation for high school-age young people who have an interest in the fire service," Langston says. "We have had over 12 young girls attend in the last five years. Our hope is these young women will consider firefighting as a career."

Yvette says that even when women meet the same physical requirements as men, there's still an assumption that they can't hack it. Some men, she says, are worried that working with a woman means they'll end up carrying her pack for her. But if anyone's likely to be seen carrying a fellow crew member's pack, it's Yvette.

"You have to fight for a job as a female here in fire country," she explains, noting that her efforts to start an all-female Hot Shot crew, like the Apache 8, have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Yvette's daughter Karlen adds that perceptions about women in fire management are changing, if slowly.

"The culture is changing within; it's not necessarily looked at as a man's job anymore," she says, adding that as more women understand what firefighting entails and that they are capable of doing the job, more may enter the field.


Each woman has her own reason for fighting fires. For Yolanda, one of Yvette's two daughters, going into fire management was an obvious choice, given the occupation of her childhood role model.

"My mom was my hero," she explains. "The passion for the job was already in my heart."

The summer after her first year at college, she joined the Warm Springs Type 1 Hot Shot Crew, putting her on the front lines of serious blazes. Case in point: She's currently fighting the Okanagon Complex Fire, now the largest fire in Washington State history at 256,500 acres and growing.

"I'm on the Spokane Reservation helping our northern brothers and sisters with their home," says Yolanda who, like her sister, is half Yakema and half Wasco. She's been on the ground with Warm Springs Engine 37 since August 18. "As much as I want to be home, I have a duty and it's in Spokane."

And it's a duty she takes seriously. Despite the machismo that sometimes comes with protecting public safety, she says firefighting is deeper than that.

"My role as a firefighter is more than just spraying water on the fire; it's more than being the fastest in physical training or the strongest lifting the most weights," Yolanda explains. "It's not the crew logo or the agency you're from, it's what you can bring to the team. To protect our native land, our neighbors' land, it's what we do as firefighters. All the egos and different levels go away as we all want to accomplish the same goal."


Yvette's other daughter, Karlen, shares that goal, but she also sees her fire management work as a stepping stone to better understanding and protecting natural resources. She had her first taste of fire the summer after finishing her associate's degree in 2012. Her rookie season was in Warm Springs, but she went on to fight fires in Washington and Arizona.

That exposure led her to study forestry and fire ecology at the University of Idaho, where she's entering her senior year. After she graduates, she'll start an internship through the State Department's Pathways program (her mother Yvette plans to follow in those footsteps).

With hands-on experience and a strong academic record—she recently received the Intertribal Timber Council's Truman D. Picard Scholarship—Karlen has a wide range of options ahead of her. Just this Saturday, she was scouted for an elite modular firefighting crew that combines Hot Shot and Smokejumper responsibilities. A member of Tribal Council also bent her ear about attending an Intertribal Timber Council meeting coming up at Yale University, encouraging her to make professional connections and consider a graduate degree there.

But regardless of where she ends up, fighting fires will always have a draw.

"I like the work, I like the people," she says. "It's long hours and hard work. I like making decisions in timely situations."

But few of those people have been women. Though she worked with a couple female firefighters her first two seasons, she was the only one on her crew this summer. Still, though the work is male-dominated and all-consuming, she says there's nothing about the job she doesn't enjoy, aside from wearing the same clothes for long stretches of time and other creature comforts that get cast aside in the name of containing blazes.

"You have to decide: sleep or shower," Karlen explains.


While reporting on fires tends to focus on threats to safety and structures and the extent to which a blaze has been contained, Yvette and her daughters see fire as something more complex than a natural disaster.

Fire is a fact of life in Warm Springs, which Karlen points out is a fire adapted ecosystem. She says she remembers learning about fire from her grandmother.

"In Warm Springs, there's been large wildfires every year or every other year since I was growing up," she says. "Not enough fire is bad for the land, too much fire is bad for the land. There's a balance."

Karlen says she sees fire as a natural, healthy medicine for the land. So, despite the job title, she and her family members are managing the fire more than fighting it. Like physicians, they are tasked with ensuring that the land gets the amount of fire it needs without causing dangerous side effects.

But even when fire burns out of control, it's not always a clear-cut tragedy. Yvette says that the County Line 2 Fire burned over her late father's home, which was occupied by other family members. Fortunately, everyone got out to safety. Passing by the property is actually a bit easier now for Yvette.

"It's like he turned a page for us," she says.

Yolanda agrees that fire often gets a bad rap, despite its importance to the ecosystem.

"When you see fire, you see black. It's not all bad," she says. "We need to educate people."

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