In the 1970s, Linda Strader became one of the first women hired on a fire crew with the U.S. Forest Service. She discovers firefighting is challenging—but in a man’s world, there would be tougher battles to fight. We’re delighted to put her compelling new book– Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love, and Courage—in the spotlight and encourage the next generation of young women to never let anyone say “no” to whatever career paths they want to pursue.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What attracted you to become a firefighter, a career that was traditionally reserved for men?
A: It certainly wasn’t because I’d dreamed of being a firefighter since I was a kid! No, it was nothing quite that profound.
My parents had moved my family from Syracuse, New York to Prescott, Arizona, while I was in my senior year. Small town Prescott didn’t have much to offer in the way of work for a seventeen-year-old. I did the fast food thing, answered the phone in a tiny office where the phone never rang, waited on tables in a luncheonette for two days…and hated every minute of it. I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what that would be. I loved the outdoors, and often explored the forest around my home. I loved playing guitar, painting, and even learned how to silversmith, but those interests weren’t going to get me out on my own. I reluctantly ended up looking for work in Tucson. There, an acquaintance found me a job with the U.S. Forest Service, working in the ranger station high in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson. True, it was an office job, but it was not ordinary one by any means. They hired me as a timekeeper for the Catalina Hot Shots, an elite firefighting crew. The crew introduced me to the exciting world of wildfire. After working two summers up there, I decided I hated office work, and applied for a firefighter position. I got it, and became one of the first women to work on a Forest Service fire crew in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.
Q: What are your recollections about the first day on the job?
A: When I met my supervisor, he squeezed my upper arm and inspected my hands for calluses…obviously checking to see if I could handle the hard work. I also noticed there were no other women, but didn’t think anything of it. After having such a hard time getting a job, I was determined to give this one my very best.
Q: Did you ever consider walking away and doing something else?
A: Yes, I did. Once when I found out the guys resented my presence on the crew, and again when I found myself blacklisted. However, I loved my job, and decided that the harder the guys made it for me, the more I wanted to keep that job.
Q: What was the most harrowing experience you can recall?
A: We were fighting a 50,000 acre fire in Northern California back in 1977, one of the worst fire seasons in recent history. Because of miscommunications, two of my crewmates and I found ourselves nearly entrapped by a backfire operation, a firefighting technique where fire officials intentionally set a fire to stop the main fire. Additionally, while watching a 200 foot wall of flames, I remember questioning the effectiveness of the fire shelter strapped to my waist…a new piece of safety equipment just added to our gear that summer.
Q: Flash-forward to the present and you have written your first book. What prompted you to share your memories abut life as a female firefighter?
A: After suffering multiple losses over a short period of time, namely ending my 23-year marriage, losing my job, and then my mom dying, I found myself looking to my past because the future looked so bleak. I’d had some amazing adventures during my seven-year career, and thought to put them down on paper before they were forgotten. Over time, I added more, and eventually discovered I’d written what resembled a book.
Q: Many people believe that writing a memoir about tough times is cathartic. Was that true for you?
A: It was not. At first I left out the ‘tough stuff’, avoiding painful memories. However, early beta readers noticed I was leaving out people and events they believed to be important. Reluctantly, I agreed. It was torture to relive events that I did not want to, and every time I edited, I cried, got angry, and filled with resentment. I don’t care if I ever read those sections again, and in fact, I hope I never have to.
Q: Writing personal details about your life and then sending them out into the world for total strangers to read has to be a scary experience. Or was it?
A: Petrifying! I had no idea how people would react. Would they relate? Would they judge me? I feared the worst. However, as reviews came in, I discovered that people did relate to my story, and they did not judge me. They admired me for sharing. What a relief.
Q: What was the hardest part of the book for you to write? And why?
A: As I mentioned above, writing about painful memoirs was the hardest. They brought back anger and resentment over how my wonderful world fell apart.
Q: When did you first realize that the craft of writing was calling to you?
A: As soon as I started writing down memories of my adventures, I couldn’t stop. But because I’d never written a book before, it took many, many rewrites to turn those memories into an actual story, one that someone would want to read. Obsessed by this point, I refused to give up until I got it right.
Q: What have you learned about yourself and your outlook on life during the actual writing process?
A: That I’m stronger than I think I am. I’ve been asked what I would tell my twenty-year-old self if I could go back in time. Not one thing. Actually, it is she who has much to say to me. All of those losses I suffered through set me back, big time. I lost touch with who I am. While reading my personal journals to write my book, I realized that I’m still her…the strong-willed twenty-year-old who fought for what she wanted. That was quite a profound realization for me.
Q: What is a typical day of writing and editing like for you?
A: Because I run a small landscape design business, I write when I have time. For me, editing is best done in the early in the morning when I’m rested, and creative writing in the late afternoon with a glass of wine. Hey, it frees up the mind! Summer is very slow for me, so I do make the most progress during that time, both writing and editing.
Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher?
A: My goal at first was to find a literary agent. After two years, and over a hundred queries and multiple rejections, I decided to query small publishers. Ironically, I had agents reading my full manuscript at the same time three publishers made offers. It was a tough decision, because I still really wanted agent representation, but I was also tired of playing the game. I ended up accepting one of those three offers, a decision I don’t regret.
Q: Successfully marketing a finished work is often one of the biggest hurdles new writers face. Was your publisher helpful in this regard or were you largely on your own?
A: My publisher made sure my book was available in multiple outlets, all over the world. They entered me into appropriate competitions, resulting in me becoming a finalist in one of them. They provided me with a press release. But speaking engagements, book signings, reaching out to the news media—that fell on me. However, I knew this would happen, no matter how I published. Therefore, I’d done my homework ages ago. I started writing a blog over five years ago, and had been networking on social media for at least three years. I exchanged blog posts with other authors. I looked for, and found, author interview opportunities. Prior to my book’s release, I booked eight speaking engagements and signing events. After watching a free online podcast about how to market your book without paying a publicist, I landed a TV interview, and Parade Magazine published an excerpt. I’m always looking for more opportunities.
Q: Now that the book is out there, what feedback from readers surprised you the most?
A: That they think of me as brave. I have never thought of myself as brave. I do know that if I want something bad enough, nothing will stop me from achieving it. If that is considered bravery, I will concede that maybe I am.
Q: What message do you want to be most strongly convey to the next generation of young women who want to follow their dreams?
A: Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do! And never give up.
Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a t-shirt, what would it say?
A: When you love what you do, it’s not called ‘work.’
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m working on a prequel to Summers of Fire. It’s a coming-of age memoir about the intricacies of love, physical attraction, deep friendship, and the longing for independence and a meaningful life.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: My blog has more about me, as well as blog posts about strong women, women in Forest Service, and links to guest blog posts and my interviews. I also have a photo gallery of my firefighting years. https://summersoffirebook.blogspot.com/
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you for this opportunity to share my story and experiences!