Katrina Mohr Can Handle the Heat
At five feet tall, she was the smallest wildland firefighter in her crew and worried she couldn’t keep up. But on her very first blaze, she discovered her strength.
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Katrina Mohr told her story to producer Sarah Fuss Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Most people’s first fire is like a single burning tree that you just look at and deal with. It’s not at all like that kind of devastation. I’m just trying not to annoy anyone, and feeling like, OK I’m not really part of this team yet. Am I gonna be able to keep up? Am I gonna be a safety issue? Because maybe I can’t keep up, and I’m not gonna be able to work hard enough.
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. I really enjoy getting out for some long trail runs. In the winter, you can definitely find me doing some epic skate skis with my dog. Right now, I am in Arkansas for work.
Back in my 20s, I was feeling super lost. I had already worked a bunch of really random jobs. I had two friends who were wildland firefighters, and I was really intrigued by it. So after talking to them a little bit more, I decided to apply.
I didn’t actually think I would get hired. When people think of a firefighter, they definitely don’t picture me. I’m five feet tall. Pretty much have been since middle school. I haven’t really grown very much, and I wouldn’t say I’m a bird-boned woman, but I’m definitely smaller in stature, in size. I don’t feel like I look very young, but that’s the perception I get from other people. It’s just like, Oh, this is a tiny woman child, running around in the woods.
I had no fire school, no training, literally nothing. All I had written on my application was, I’m a long-distance trail runner. I’ve done long backpacking trips. I was just feeling like maybe someone will hire me based on my outdoor activities. That was my Hail Mary sentence that I threw into my application, and it actually worked.
I showed up in Northern California. Most of the guys were ranch kids. They were all pretty buff, and most of them were tall. I think the shortest guy on that crew of 20 was maybe five-eight.
Your “yellow” is your button down shirt. And green pants. They issued me my yellow and my greens, and they were two sizes too big. I was rolling the cuffs. I had to cut eight inches off my pants and everything. I just immediately felt like, This gear doesn’t even fit me. I don’t know what I’m doing here.
There was one other woman. Within the first two weeks she failed out. I just felt completely out of my element. I was like, There’s no way I can hike with these guys and carry a saw. And then you have to carry a domar, which is two-and-a-half gallons of saw mix and bar oil. It’s 25, 30 pounds. I was just like, There’s no way I can carry this weight.
I’m also 26 years old, which is pretty old for getting into fire. Most people get into fire out of high school in some small towns, and then in college.
Everyone was professional and was helping me at work tasks, but no one was inviting me to do stuff after work or hang out. I was in the bunkhouse, and they definitely weren’t warming up to me at all.
It was late June or early July. We were on a project, working normal days, just cutting junipers. And then we got a call that we had a fire assignment.
We drove from Northern California to Pocatello, Idaho. It’s a really weird headspace to be in sometimes, driving to an incident. Really bad things are happening. You can’t do anything until you get there. So, I’m just kind of freaking out in the back seat. I’m just trying not to annoy anyone, and just feeling like, OK I’m not really part of this team yet. Am I gonna be able to keep up? Am I gonna be a safety issue? Because maybe I can’t keep up, and I’m not gonna be able to work hard enough to be an asset.
Finally, we show up to this fire in Pocatello. It had unfortunately been a subdivision that had burned to the ground. I found out later that someone had been welding a fence in a super dry field, and then it was kind of windy, and that burning slag from his welding had just taken off and people literally had five minutes to grab whatever they could and flee the subdivision.
Basically, the fire made its big push the night before we arrived. And so all the houses were already burned, there’s smoking, and a lot of debris everywhere. There’s just skeletons of houses and barns and people’s garages. Things are all melted together, and there’s just chimneys standing. I had never ever seen anything like that in person.
You see pictures on the news of things that had happened, but just to see that level of devastation. And then, one of our squads had run into groups of horses that were super thirsty and just hadn’t had food and were really, really scared.
The fire was still burning behind the houses. We were tasked with mopping up and securing the edge to make sure the fire didn’t spread anymore. I was listening to people and started following them and doing what I could. At one point, there was a hill. The thing you use a lot—especially if you’re a crew and you don’t have an engine with access to a lot of water—is a bladder bag. They carry five gallons of water. So they weigh about like 40, 45 pounds, depending on how full you can get them.
I’m already carrying my 35-pound pack and they were like, “Hey Katrina, grab that bladder bag and walk up this hill.” And I almost laughed. I remember looking at my captain just with disbelief where I’m like, I’m so small. What do you mean? Look over at this guy, he’s huge, and he’s done this before. I can’t carry that.
It wasn’t like I was trying to shirk my duty. But I just could not imagine putting that weight on my body and walking up this hill and continuing to work. The idea of carrying 75, 80 pounds on my back was so inconceivable to me.
And then I realized Oh, he is serious. I need to do this, or I’m probably just gonna be cut like that other girl. I have to do something. So I just was like, OK, just put it on your back and walk one step at a time.
Maybe, I can just carry it for five minutes, and if it’s too much, I can try and find someone I can pass it on to, or just tell him, “Hey, maybe I’ll just ease into it.” I didn’t know my plan. But I knew at that point, I had to put this on my back or I’m failing.
And I did.
I had no idea what I was doing. So I said, “Hey, you guys, where do you want this?” Or “What do I do with this?” And so they said, “OK, here’s hot ash, just spray some water in this ash.” And then they started moving around with our tool. It’s kind of like If you’re mixing up leftovers in the microwave; then it’s all the same temperature, and it cools down. So that’s the point of the bladder bag.
I went down and filled it up. I did that hill three times. And it just felt, mentally and physically, like a huge hurdle. I realized it’s super heavy at first, but then you just walk and stop every once in a while. You work with a partner, and just spray your water out, and it just gets lighter and lighter. It’s pretty amazing that just that one thing, such an insignificant part of my job now, was the key to finally feeling like, Oh, I can do this job.
After that, one of the guys said, “Hey, you did a really good job today. I could see you were working really hard, and saw you carrying that.” And I think it was just really validating. Even though I don’t always feel external validation, it’s what I need internally to feel like I did a good job. It just meant a lot.
After that day, I became part of the crew. I was a team member. And I felt like they finally saw that they could count on me. The guys treated me a lot differently and they started inviting me out. We had one place in town where you could go sing karaoke on Thursdays, and they invited me out to it. And we got to drink Shiner Bock and be crazy. I sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” because that’s my go-to, always.
I do tell people who are new to fire, under me, on my engine, or someone who wants to get into fire, “Don’t underestimate yourself.” It’s easy to let other people’s opinions influence what you’re capable of. And you just have to put it on sometimes, or just take that step and try it and see what happens. Just be curious about it.
I found my strengths that I’m good at in fire, and it balances out other people’s weaknesses. That’s just part of being a fire team. I feel like it sounds really corny. But in those ways, they’re like the superhero teams; everyone has those strengths and you use those together to be the best, most efficient team.
Katrina Mohr is a federal wildland firefighter, leisure athlete, and writer living in McCall, Idaho. Her website provides information on what the job is really like and how to navigate applying for the position. You can also find her on Instagram @kgmohr.
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