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'Fire Girl' author blazed trail as woman firefighter
Jan Mendoza is not one to be told what she cannot do.
Try it, and she's sure to prove you wrong.
Such was the case 34 years ago when the petite young music major overheard a man griping about female firefighters. A bit antagonistic, Mendoza told him maybe she would sign up, and when he told her she was too small, she said, "That's it. I'm doing it."
She went on to become one of the first female firefighters for the California Department of Forestry, now known as Calfire. She spent one summer battling wildland blazes in a nearly all-male environment, guarding the forests from a remote lookout tower on her weekends and then after a brief stint as a volunteer firefighter, Mendoza returned to her previous life, forever shaped by an experience she embraced on a dare.
"It really showed me that I could do something totally out of the box," she said. "I go through life and tell myself, 'You've fought forest fires — you can do this.'"
The Wheatland resident recently penned a book about her experience, called "Fire Girl." A petite woman with sharp blue eyes and magenta hair extensions, Mendoza admitted she never envisioned herself as a firefighter.
"It was the one thing I did that was totally outside my personality," she said. "It was nothing I had planned — or dreamed about or even thought about."
When Calfire lifted its ban on female firefighters in 1975, only two women applied. Three years later, when Mendoza signed up, she was one of only 26 women statewide.
The number grew by a few women each year, eventually hitting 468 in 1988, but today, female firefighters still represent only 5 percent of the Calfire force.
"It's hard work, it's a certain mentality," Mendoza admitted. "I was just one of those girls who wanted to do something on a dare."
Once she committed to a summer with Calfire, she signed up for a firefighting course, trained for the physical rigors of the job and finally reported for duty at the mountainous Whitmore station, east of Redding. Eighteen years old, 5-foot-2 and all of 95 pounds, she had an inkling her captain would not be thrilled to see her.
"He said, 'I knew I was getting a girl, but I hoped I was getting a bigger one,'" Mendoza recalled.
She expected challenges, but being a trailblazer was more difficult than she imagined. As a woman in an industry dominated by and historically ruled by men, she frequently battled chauvinism and pressure to perform above and beyond her male counterparts.
"I never saw a girl the whole time. When I tested, there were 200 guys and me," she said. "Where were all the girls?"
Mendoza shared a bathroom with men, slept in the same room as men and admits a few were not pleased by her presence.
"They did not think I could take care of them in an emergency situation," she said. "It was really hard for me to swing that ax, it was really difficult for me to lift that hose, but I tried. What I didn't have in size, I made up for in attitude."
Mendoza faced her share of deadly situations that summer, including an engine rolling over and entrapment in a clearing during a burnover — a horror she has never forgotten.
"I never saw the flames coming toward us," she said. "It was like a tornado inside an oven. And the sound? It was like a train."
When she wasn't fighting fire, there was plenty of grunt work to be done, whether degreasing engines in 100-degree heat or sweeping pine needles. On her weekends, desperate for a reprieve from the all-male environment, she worked solo as a lookout at South Fork Mountain, near Whiskeytown.
Working the long, laborious fire season for a monthly wage of $550 — and no overtime or hazard pay — taught Mendoza a lot, she said, from responsibility to hard work to her own mortality.
When the season ended, she dated a fire captain from another station and briefly worked as a volunteer firefighter before deciding grisly paramedic calls were not what she was looking for.
She reverted to her college intentions and became a musician, touring the country as a singer for rock bands and legends like James Brown. She later worked as a radio broadcaster and now does media relations for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
When Mendoza, 52, first considered writing a book, she figured another woman must have already penned their tale. But among those initial female firefighters, no one had — not even those who stuck with it and retired in the profession.
"People said, 'Why don't you write about your music career?' Oh no. Not until my parents are dead," Mendoza said with laugh.
All proceeds of the book go to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, to support family members who lose firefighters in the line of duty. Mendoza also created a website, www.wildlandfirewomen.com, as a tribute to female firefighters and hopes others will use it to share anecdotes and pictures from their pioneer days in the profession.
That guy who drove her decision? Mendoza never saw him again but is grateful for how the exchange shaped her life. She encourages young women to take a similar leap.
"Do something really adventurous and something totally outside your personality," she said. "Something a little dangerous, a little exciting, a little crazy."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.