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Local women learn to fight fires

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Collie Sween, 17, of Trail, left, learns to use the Jaws of Life tool to safely remove a victim from a car during the Rogue Girls Fire Camp at the regional training grounds in White City Sunday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Young women get instruction how to safely remove a victim from a car during the Rogue Girls Fire Camp.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Participants learn how to safely remove a victim from a car during the Rogue Girls Fire Camp.
Event is meant to inspire more women to become first responders

A group of local young women interested in firefighting as a career spent the weekend learning an array of skills fundamental to the profession.

The women ages 16-20 signed up for the day camp held at the Regional Training Center in White City. This is where firefighters working across the area do their training and drills.

And this weekend the site was alive with youthful female enthusiasm in what has been described by some as a mini fire academy.

Many of the participants are studying for careers in fire service. Having or working toward completing this type of education wasn’t a requirement, however.

An associate’s degree in fire science along with basic emergency medical technician training often meets minimum post-high school graduation requirements to work on many fire departments.

A good driving record is also important, said Samantha Metheny, deputy fire marshal for Medford Fire-Rescue.

Metheny, who also works as the Medford fire department’s public educator, is one of the event’s primary organizers. She is among several women, all career first responders, who are behind this effort to increase the number of women in firefighting and emergency medical service.

“We are hoping to inspire and empower young women,” Metheny said. “We hope by the end of the camp, some of the participants leave with an interest to pursue careers in emergency service.”

Many local fire agencies provide support to the camp.

Metheny and Ashley Manning, the first woman to serve as acting fire captain for Ashland Fire and Rescue, who is also an organizer of the event, had at different times both attended the Portland Metro Fire Camp for women, which inspired this area event.

On Saturday morning, the Rogue Girls Fire Camp focused on what Metheny described as “bread-and-butter techniques.”

The young women formed small groups to learn hands-on how to do such things as set up and operate air tanks, properly load and unload hoses on fire engines, as well as attach hoses to fire hydrants.

These are among skills they would need to do routinely — sometimes even at 3 a.m., after being awakened from a sound sleep — to extinguish a fire.

One of the instructors told some of the young women that such work conditions are why it’s important to practice these types of routines over and over until doing them is part of their “muscle memory.”

Some of the young women at the camp said the most difficult basic skill practiced that morning was opening a fire hydrant. It was compared with swiftly climbing flights of stairs wearing turnout gear and a heavy tank strapped on their back supplying air through a hose into a cumbersome face mask.

Both require peak physical conditioning. Not just cardiovascular or weight training, but both, Metheny said.

The 2020 fire camp was canceled because of COVID-19. Some women who attended the 2019 camp assisted with supervision of activities at this camp.

Sarah Axtell, 21, of Sunny Valley, was helping the younger women set up and put on their air tanks. She participated in the 2019 camp and went through the fire academy last year during the pandemic.

Axtell and others in the academy didn’t want to wait for that experience — even with some limits on how certain aspects of training could be carried out, she said.

“I’ve wanted to do it for quite a bit,” she said of getting her professional education and career goal. “Since 2016.”

Kaylene Lassagne, 19, of Grants Pass, was attending her second fire camp.

She wants to help others through public service because she comes from a family that’s involved and values that type of essential work, she said.

“I like working around and with water,” Lassagne explained. “And people. I’m a good people person.”

She was looking forward to rappelling from a window set high in the training tower later on.

Other planned activities included cutting open junk vehicles — sometimes necessary at motor vehicle accident sites to save lives — how to get into structures on fire if the doors are locked, and provide hands-only CPR.

A representative with the Oregon Department of Forestry spoke to the group as well over the weekend.

Sections of time were spent on what composes the required physical agility test and wildland firefighting.

Metheny pointed out that just seven women currently are working as career firefighters in Jackson and Josephine counties. Fifteen young women attended the camp, excluding the volunteers who participated in the 2019 event.

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.