In October 2019, San Francisco firefighter Julie DeJarlais surveyed the wreckage from California’s Kincade Fire, which razed more than 77,000 acres and destroyed 374 buildings over 11 days. Thick, white smoke limited her visibility, filling the air with toxic particulates that made her sinuses ache.
But she’d seen worse. In 2017, she fought the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, which leveled 5,600 buildings and killed 22 people. It looked like a bomb had dropped, DeJarlais recalls: “Everything was gray and white and black, with no color or foliage.” Temperatures were so high that the water from the hose burned her hands. Flames were everywhere; she was forced to drive by house fires to concentrate on areas that might spread. “It’s not in my DNA to drive past fire,” she says, two years later.
DeJarlais, 48, entered the fire service in 2001 and attained lieutenant rank in 2011, making her three ranks from fire chief, which would make her essentially head of every firefighter in the city. She has declined two captain tests — the next level up — because she’d have to move stations. She’s happy at Station 13 in San Francisco’s financial district — “Lucky 13,” she calls it (superstition has no place in firefighting). She says her crew’s like her family; everyone looks out for each other.
But the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) wasn’t always such an inclusive family — women weren’t allowed to work there until 1976, and then it took a lawsuit to get their first female hire in 1987. Across the United States, women entering the force experienced harassment and ridicule about their ability to handle the job, says Candice McDonald of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.
This is a familiar story for women entering traditionally male industries. The difference is that in 2018, women made up 26.7 percent of U.S. law enforcement, 16 percent of the U.S. Army and 10 percent of the Marine Corps. Female firefighters, meanwhile, comprise just 5.1 percent of all U.S. career firefighters. Firefighting professionals attribute this discrepancy to a “bro-like” culture, which often disregards women’s needs; many stations lack separate showers or dorm rooms. On the supply end, 75 percent of women are equipped with ill-fitting gear. “That’s a safety issue,” says McDonald. “You’re giving them gloves like oven mitts and asking them to perform.”
San Francisco has gained ground since its shaky start. Today, 15.3 percent of the force is women, the highest percentage in the country. “I feel there are always women around,” says 27-year-old firefighter Alix Desmole. It’s her third year in the service.
Station 13 is also a diverse firehouse, full of second-generation immigrants representing Vietnam, Nigeria, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, the Caribbean and more. But they’re not representative of U.S. firehouses; 82 percent of firefighters are white, 9 percent are black, 8.3 percent are Latino and 1 percent are Asian. There are no numbers specifically for female minorities.
For DeJarlais, the shift in San Francisco’s firehouses has been dramatic. She’s gone from being one of the few women in the room — and a woman of color — to one of many.
Over the years, DeJarlais has perfected her morning routine; her alarm dings at 5:45 a.m., and she showers, pours coffee for the road, kisses her fiance goodbye and heads into the city in her electric Hyundai Kona — “because San Francisco,” she says. She’s at the station by 7 a.m., an hour early for her 24-hour shift.
On a recent Friday, DeJarlais started by assembling her firefighting crew for the day: Truc Nguyen, a trained driver, at the wheel, DeJarlais sitting shotgun, and Desmole, a trained EMT, with Dave Pagan, a trained paramedic, in the back.
But before they get to work, their first stop is the Philz coffee cart on Sansome Street, and they order from the secret menu: Oatmeal cookie-flavored coffee is a group favorite, but DeJarlais opts for a hazelnut blend today.
A distress call comes in, and everyone clambers into the truck. The siren wails its way through the streets, taking the city’s famous hills at speed. The first call is a dud; it’s a fire alarm that can only be turned off by firefighters. “This happens a lot,” Desmole says. They’re heading back to the station when another call comes in. “Gear up,” DeJarlais advises.
The truck pulls up to the curb and Desmole and Pagan hop out, slipping out of their regulation navy pants and into bulky fire gear in under 60 seconds. Desmole wears cycling shorts under her pants, while Pagan opts for long boxers. Usually, they change in the truck; less room, but no rubbernecks peering from passing lanes.
This call is an EMT issue; a man collapsed during acupuncture. Every firefighter has EMT training, per department rules, and over 70 percent of 911 calls are medical. Desmole administers chest compressions until the ambulance arrives and stretchers him away. More calls follow: a few more building alarms, a diabetic person choking on a soda, a girl having difficulty breathing. Station 13 receives around 33 calls a day.
Most calls aren’t necessarily what Desmole envisaged when she was dreaming about working in fire when she was a kid. She’s wanted to work as a firefighter since she was 9, when she saw a documentary about smoke jumpers — firefighters who parachute into remote wildfires. She thought it looked like the best job in the world: a mix of adrenaline and public service.
Her French immigrant parents weren’t so sure — it’s a dangerous job for a girl, she remembers her mom telling her. Her mom’s still nervous, but her dad loves her stories — “he lives vicariously through me,” Desmole says.
The work has surpassed her expectations. During Desmole’s probationary period in 2016, she resuscitated a one-week-old baby boy. Her palm was larger than his chest. “It was scary ... he was so tiny,” she remembers. He’s 3 now. “That was a feel-good moment.”
She’s seen bad things too; she’s too raw to talk about the worst, she says, but suicides are up there. “Some affect you more than others,” Desmole says. “Sometimes I get flashbacks.” She shrugs.
The SFFD does not employ psychologists for firefighters, but they’re building out a peer support system to help. It’s needed; fire is a tough space to work in, fighters say. Additionally, female firefighters have a higher risk of suicide than their male colleagues, and 20 percent of them experience post-traumatic stress disorder, explains Consuela Arbona, a psychology research professor at the University of Houston.
“Firefighters are involved in really traumatic situations, but women have been overlooked in mental-health research,” Arbona says.
Station 13 has a great culture according to the female firefighters there, but DeJarlais and Desmole say they know of many stations where women get shunned and bullied. “I’ve heard terrible stories,” says Women in Fire’s McDonald. She says these tales range from verbal abuse to sexual assault and hazing. One woman who reported that her gear had been slashed — presumably because she was a woman — was told to cover the repair costs by her chief. Messing with people’s gear is a safety hazard, McDonald says; not having the right equipment places the firefighter, her teammates and the people she’s trying to help in danger.
The profession is already dangerous to people’s health. All firefighters have an elevated risk of cancer, but a 2018 study found 15 percent of San Francisco’s firewomen had breast cancer diagnoses; the national average is around 13 percent. Female firefighters get hurt more, too, with a 33 percent higher injury rate than men. “They don’t ask for help as they don’t want to be viewed as weak,” McDonald says. “Men in the same situation ask for help.”
Every firefighter is required to pass the same tests. The physical one includes dragging a 165-pound mannequin for 70 feet, sledgehammering a door and shouldering heavy gear up ladders and through tight spaces. “I can do anything a guy can, probably more,” says DeJarlais. She stands at 5-foot-6, but she’s 190 pounds of muscle. She has been athletic for her whole life; in college, she played soccer and competed in track, then got into CrossFit. These days, she’s into Muay Thai, a martial art, and Strongman workouts — she dead lifts 550-pound barbells. She jokes that she doesn’t get hazed by the men for this reason: “I’d crush them,” she laughs.
On a more serious note, she still feels as though she has to continuously prove herself. “No matter what you do, men are frightened by strong women,” DeJarlais says. She cites microaggressions — people taking credit for her ideas or not asking for her opinion. “Women will always have to do more — we’ll never be considered as rad as the dudes,” she says.
Lunchtime is roughly 1 p.m., and the whole station assembles in the dining area. They follow a tight rotation: Every day, a different firefighter shops, cooks and serves a meal to 13-odd people. Today’s fare is grilled cheese with a spicy chicken bone broth, courtesy of firefighter Joe Devaty. Leftovers are used for dinner. DeJarlais brought her own lunch, a quinoa salad and an amino acid shake in a green “Incredible Hulk” flask — she’s been following the keto diet for four years now. She often brings in keto cookies and macaroons for the crew; they’re great taste-testers for Cave Babe Bakery, her side hustle, she says.
After lunch, DeJarlais heads to the wood workshop in the station garage. Desmole hands her a drill and reels off instructions: Her task is to refit a 12-foot “Season’s Greetings” sign to hang above the station. The man who used to do this left last year, she explains.
Working 24-hour shifts is tough on firefighters’ sleep routines — and their relationships. Without a supportive partner, it’s difficult to date, according to the women who work there. Desmole has that covered; she met her boyfriend in a fire science training class. He works around her hours, so their puppy, Aria, is always cared for.
Upstairs, there are two floors for resting. As a lieutenant, DeJarlais gets a bedroom to herself; Desmole naps in the mixed dorm. Even so, it’s hard to feel rested with one ear open, Desmole says. The women here have earmarked the right side of the dorm, as it’s closest to their showers. When this was an all-male station, rumor has it that the women’s bathroom doubled as a sauna, Desmole says, and they cranked up the heat and turned the water on full blast.
Separate male and female facilities are a sign of progress, says Amy Hanifan, vice president of Women in Fire: “It makes firefighting more welcoming to women.” When Hanifan joined the service in 2001, she’d hang a sign on the door when she showered.
There are other ways firefighting is changing, too. Instead of “fireman,” stations are increasingly using the term “firefighter.” This helps women and non-binary folks see a place for themselves in the service, according to firefighting professionals, and mentorship and leadership programs develop skills in junior staff.
For DeJarlais, working in fire is a no-brainer, struggle or not. “What does a fireman and policeman have in common?” she says. “They both wanted to be firefighters.”
It’s increasingly clear that California, in particular, is in need of more firefighters like DeJarlais, Desmole and their colleagues. Year after year, the fires are getting worse. In 2018, in what was California’s deadliest blaze, the Camp Fire razed 153,000 acres — about the size of Chicago — and 85 people died. “Over the last few years, it’s getting bigger and bigger,” DeJarlais says. “We’ve ruined our environment.”
She’s feeling the effects of climate change; temperatures in California have risen 3 percent compared to 1 percent for the rest of the United States. The dried out vegetation is especially susceptible to sparks. The fires blaze hotter and longer.
“We’ll do what we can,” DeJarlais says. “But there’s only so much we can save.”