Camp Blaze stokes future female firefighters

Amina Saleh was 16 when she read a two-page spread about Camp Blaze in Teen Magazine, seeing other girls her age rappelling down the side of buildings and climbing 100-foot ladders into the sky, under the guidance of seasoned female firefighters.

"I remember grabbing it and running down to my mom and saying, 'Mom, look, all the girls get to do this stuff,' " Saleh said. "… I had never met anyone like me that is a firefighter."

Eleven years later, Saleh is a Seattle firefighter in her sixth year volunteering at Camp Blaze — an annual camp that shows girls 16-19 years of age what it takes to be a firefighter. This is her first year watching over a group of young women as a crew leader at the weeklong event that brought campers out to the Bellevue Public Safety Training Center on Tuesday.

"It's amazing, I think, seeing someone your size doing this," she said of teen campers, who Tuesday climbed ladders, practiced extricating victims from vehicles, rappelling down buildings and more. "You say, 'If they can do it, anything's possible.' "

Firefighting is a career field that hasn't historically included many women, said Karen Stone, who before joining Camp Blaze spent 18 years working for the San Francisco Fire Department, and now lives in Seattle. Those numbers seem to be declining, and Camp Blaze is a great opportunity to encourage young women to consider fire service as a career, she said. More than that, Stone added, is showing them they have the strength to tackle any challenge before them.

"It's an empowerment and leadership camp for young women," Stone said. "We want them to be successful, whatever they do, and feel like they can do anything."

This is the first time campers have trained at the Bellevue center. The camp is made available to participants for free through various grants, support from firefighters' unions and other fundraising efforts. It costs $1,200 to host each camper. About 40 young women make up this year's camp. Stone said access is too important to saddle prospective female firefighters with those costs.

"There'll be enough obstacles to this career," she said. "This is a very competitive career."

Christina Howard said she was lucky to learn about Camp Blaze when she did, because she is just under the age cutoff. Her friend's father, a Seattle firefighter, had heard the 19-year-old Federal Way emergency medical technician talking about her desire to get into fire service to advance as a paramedic and told her about Camp Blaze.

"It's not exactly what I was expecting," Howard said. "It was actually more. I didn't think they would let us use a chain saw."

As an EMT in Federal Way, Howard is used to being trained by men. She said Camp Blaze provides teenage girls with "determined, focused women" mentors that make her feel supported in her career goals. While there are those who say women can't compete with men when it comes to the physical challenges of firefighting, Howard said firefighters of all genders learn to rely on the strength of their teams.

"I think Camp Blaze creates a good sisterhood, and lots of respect for each other is very important," she said. "People can work better if they respect each other."

Camp Blaze concludes with a graduation ceremony on Saturday, and campers also qualify for a college credit through Bates Technical College in Tacoma.

"They graduate on Saturday, on top of the world," Stone said.


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