'Coolest opportunity': Portland women's fire camp returns
Campers in Sherwood spent this past weekend learning and practicing important skills — after all, they will need them in one of society's most challenging, and recently relevant, professions.
The Portland Metro Fire Camp was held this weekend at the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Training Center in Sherwood. A second camp experience will take place in late August in Portland.
The camp is run by all-female firefighters, and attendees are young women aged 16 to 21. On July 30, the total headcount was 35 campers, according to TVF&R spokesperson Kim Haughn.
The campers spent the weekend learning in classrooms from professionals and practicing skills like fire hose operation, wildland firefighting safety, fire hydrant use and more. They dressed in professional-grade gear, including boots, long pants with suspenders, helmets and gloves, and eye protection, depending on the activity.
TVF&R's training center provides ample space for the different activities. Haughn described the property as like an "adult playground."
Emily VanMeter is a lieutenant paramedic with TVF&R, and in her role as incident command for the fire camp, she watched over camper and counselor safety and ensured everything ran smoothly.
VanMeter said firefighting didn't seem like a realistic career for her at a young age, and she didn't join the fire service until she was 33. She didn't grow up familiar with firefighting, and it was never introduced to her as something she could do.
"It was always kind of a guy's job. That's what you see in the media," VanMeter said. "And then when you see the engines and the trucks driving around, it's all a bunch of dudes.
"I think the camp became an opportunity to teach young girls that it is an opportunity for them and it is a career."
Venus Howard started as a camper in 2018. Then, she got an internship with Hood River Fire & EMS and an opportunity to be a counselor at the fire camp this year. Howard said that, as a woman in the industry, she feels like she's one of the pioneers starting something new.
There are definitely differences between people in the field, whether it's race, gender or something else, Howard said, but one of the biggest reasons she enjoys firefighting is the people with whom she works.
"The thing is, with those differences, they're not barriers. You learn to really listen and understand people," Howard said. "I feel like that when you're different in a field, it opens up the door to listen, respect and understand people."
If you're having a hard time in your job or career, Howard said, "keep on going."
The fire camp is also a great opportunity for young women to build confidence, VanMeter said — confidence in their own lives and to feel empowered to choose the career they want, even if it's a male-dominated field.
"Remembering when we were that age, you tend to be very self-conscious and worried about what people think. And when we all grew up, we never had anything like it. There was no girls camp for fire," VanMeter said.
Attendees were enjoying the camp on Friday, too.
"(Firefighting is) not something that's talked about a lot for young women, and so this is just the coolest opportunity to not only be around other people who want to do similar things that I do, but also be taught by a whole group of just really, really cool people," said camper Maya McDonald.
Abby McIlraith said she's possibly interested in pursing firefighting one day, and the camp helped to show her what it's like and "sort of made it a reality, that it's a realistic career path."
For a few of the young women, their favorite activities were ones that regular civilians might not get a chance to do. Some of the activities brought them onto rooftops with axes or behind steel doors equipped with a pry tool called a Halligan.
"It feels super-badass," McIlraith said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of a camp participant. Her name is Cierah Binder. The story has been corrected.
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