This 25-Year-Old Female Firefighter Risks Her Life to Battle Wildfires Out West
Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) Here millennial wild land firefighter Bailey McDade talks about her first-hand experience fighting fire.
Why she’s a badass: This 25-year-old spends six months a year traveling with the Forest Service to handle various wildfires and prescribed burns in the American West. For about 80 to 160 hours per week often for two weeks at a time, McDade risks her life to protect the forest and make it a healthier and safer environment for the animals and people living in surrounding areas. Typically, she’ll start the summer season were she’s based in Arizona and will then be sent across the Northwest as needed. “I want people to understand that this is a real career path, and it’s a really rewarding career path,” McDade says adding that her passion for wildlife and the outdoors were major influences in pursuing a firefighting field.
How she got into firefighting: McDade had planned on becoming a veterinarian after studying wildlife science and animal science at Virginia Tech. Then, a trip to Central America to work with jaguars in Belize shifted her focus from animal medicine to wildlife research and conservation. She then began working for state parks and started to realize that she enjoyed doing prescribed (or controlled) burns to balance out the local ecosystems in her state. “I remember thinking how fun it was and how you could impact such a large area of land doing something that seems relatively simple. Then I wanted to move on to bigger, wide open spaces and I thought the Forest Service was my in for that.”
Family support: “Before [this career], I moved to Belize to work with jaguars, so my family wasn't that surprised when I told them I was moving out west to become a firefighter.” McDade made the move to Arizona even before she secured her position on the U.S. Forest Service's firefighting team. “It's a really cool job. I feel fortunate to have stepped into it and to have had it take off so quickly.“
The gear: McDade says her fire-resistant gear consists of a long-sleeve button-up shirt and pair of cargo pants that are made of a plastic blend that feels like cloth. McDade and her gear were recently featured by Plastics Make it Possible for their “Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation” program consisting of an online gallery, video, and multi-city pop-up exhibit celebrating her work. She also carries a hard hat, safety glasses, leather boots, leather gloves, and a big backpack containing drinking water, food, fire shelters, and extra tools. “All-together, our gear weighs about 45 pounds minimum, and then everybody is assigned either chainsaws or some kind of hand tool. Sometimes we’ll also carry these vinyl backpacks that hold five gallons of water [used to fight fires], so that’s an extra 45 pounds.”
But McDade remains undeterred. She says her physically demanding job has taught her a lot about herself and has helped her to appreciate the incredible places she’s been able to visit. “Even on my worst day at work, I still want to be sitting on a log in the woods somewhere than anywhere else. Like earlier this year in Montana, I got horribly sick on a fire and I was just miserable. But I looked up and I realized, ‘Wow, this is a really pretty mountain. The view up there was just incredible, and I would have never seen anything like that if I wasn't there for fire."
Overcoming mental obstacles: McDade says it took some time to get over initial jitters about working so closely to flames. “One day I was holding a torch (a can of gasoline and diesel mixed so you can drip it as it lights on fire) lighting a controlled fire and it was getting kind of hot on my face so I stepped backwards. I watched some pretty tall flames in front of me and started getting all freaked out. Then my boss came on the radio and said, ‘Hey Bailey, you’re in the fire, girl.’ I looked behind me and I was standing waist-deep in flames.“ McDade says that even though the service provides its firefighters with just a single layer of flame-resistant clothing to wear, she felt comfortable. It was a turning point for overcoming her fear. “I felt completely fine and I thought, ‘Alright. This is a cool job.’”
But McDade says the real tough part about wild land firefighting, aside from how physically demanding the job can be, is the stamina it takes to stay mentally engaged for long periods of time in the field. “Sometimes there’s that hurry up and wait issue, where you go really quickly to everything some days and then other you might be digging a live all day long miles away from the reaction of the fire. It’s tough to stay with it and understand that even the mundane tasks you’re doing are important to the whole operation.”
Woman in the field: McDade is the only woman on her crew and in her district. “When you're the only girl, you do sometimes think about proving yourself. But you have to realize that any one of those guys is willing to save your life on any given day, and you have to feel the same way about them.”
That said, McDade does wants to see more women in the field. “[Firefighting] definitely takes a really strong work ethic. You have to play nice with others because you're spending 24/7 with your crew (which also means you have to have a good sense of humor). I want to inspire more young women to become firefighters and to take on those non-traditional roles and jobs in general because it's rewarding and I think [many millennial women] would be interested in it.”
How she spends the off-season: The ultra-adventurous firefighter simply can’t stay indoors. “I do a lot of traveling in the winter months,” McDade says. “Most fire people I know around my age go on adventures, take a chill pill, and go see our family and friends.” The Virginia native says she likes going hiking, snowboarding, and taking backpacking trips when she’s not fighting fires. “My friends and my boss always think I’m crazy. They say, ‘What are you doing camping and hiking? You do that for a living.’ I genuinely enjoy it.”
What's next: The young firefighter plans to keep at it rejoining her wild land firefighting crew in the summer season. "Maybe down the road, I could totally see myself being a vegetable farmer or dabbling a little bit more in my animal research, but for now, I'm definitely enjoying [firefighting] because I feel like I'm able to make an impact."