"This isn't a job for women," my male friend S. says.
Wait. This isn't what you think.
If you've been on the fireline, you've seen them, the women who disappear. Their arms etched with muscle, they walk in line with the men. After all these years our eyes still go to them; they still stand out. And then one by one they vanish, as surely as if they just moved off into the smoke, their outlines becoming blurred, indistinct; look again and they are gone.
They aren't forced to go. It is easier now to be a female firefighter than it ever was, thanks in part to those brave women who paved the way in the '70s and '80s. But stay too long in this job and your arms start feeling empty. For a woman, children and fire are an almost impossible combination, at least the kind of fire that sends you out into the world without a destination, where you wake up in the morning not knowing where you might sleep that night, or for the next two weeks.
It's easier to be a man. Nobody questions a man who goes off to be a smokejumper, to fling himself out of an airplane toward the unforgiving earth, leaving children at home. In a fire partnership, it is almost always the woman who gives up her job, becomes a dispatcher or a fire planner or a teacher, or someone with a desk job. Of the women I know who started when I did and are still out there on the ground fighting fire, almost all are childless. The few with children who remain have the rarest of support systems.
To be fair, the ones who leave seem happy. They say they don't miss it, those days walking with fire; a child, they say, or a relationship, is always the best choice. They are probably right: I chose fire, and most days I don't regret it. Still, I have seen so many of them vanish from the fireline, the best and the brightest of them. I hate to see them go.