"The atmosphere was so positive and it was such a great learning experience for me." She adds, "The experience gave me lots of self-confidence and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to as long as I was willing to work hard. It taught me about leadership and teamwork and gave me enormous respect for women firefighters. It really was a big turning point in my life."
Camp Blaze is organized and led by women firefighters, who come from all over the nation to serve as volunteer mentors and role models to the camp’s teen participants.
The first camp was held in 2001 and there have been five others in the ensuing years, all held in North Bend, with the exception of the one in 2002, which took place in San Francisco.
All of the camp’s founding directors knew each other through the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services and had worked together at a day camp in 1999. It was there that the idea of having a sustainable residential firefighting camp for young women was born.
"We all imagined what a big impact a camp like this could make on young women’s lives," says Penny Stone, member of the board of directors for Camp Blaze. "We each imagined how different our paths to firefighting might have been if we had been mentored and taught by women firefighters at such a young age."
Stone, who is also a veteran paramedic/firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department, explains that the name of the camp is symbolic of the desire to "blaze a trail for future young women."
It’s also an acronym representing the program’s focus on bravery, leadership, attitude, zenith and empowerment.
She adds that although the camp is not an academy, it does give young women a real taste of firefighting.
Equally important is its ability to serve as a vehicle for leadership training, team building and instilling confidence within participants to enable them to be more successful in their lives.
The camp incorporates classes, hands-on activities and physical training, which includes team building and leadership exercises, rappelling, a 100-foot aerial ladder climb, the use of firefighting equipment, search and rescue, live fire training and CPR certification.
Eight directors coordinate the camp, which is now held biennially, and there are 12 crew leaders for 24 campers.
Additionally, 50-plus volunteers are on hand to help with everything from teaching classes to preparing food and doing laundry.
Although many of the campers are from the Northwest, some have come from as far away as Sweden. About half of them have had opportunities to be cadets with a local fire department, though experience in the field is not a requirement for acceptance.
With only two dozen campers, however, admission is competitive.
The camp is free to participants, but in actuality it costs about $1,000 per camper for the weeklong session.
"We raise all the money ourselves," explains Stone. "We get donations from fire departments, fire department unions, organizations who want to sponsor a camper and basically from anyone who wants to help out. Because of the cost, we decided to hold the camp every other year instead of annually. That way, we have more time to raise the money."
For Stone and the other female firefighters involved in the camp, the experience of watching the participants become stronger and more confident women is incredibly rewarding.
"It’s empowerment for these teens," comments Melissa Irish, a crew leader at the camp and longtime firefighter with the Redmond Fire Department. "And being able to see the growth that occurs within them is truly amazing. They go from kids to young women in such a short time. It’s like they experience two years worth of growth in just one week."
As a child, Irish never really knew that there were barriers for women.
When she wanted to play Little League, her mother marched down to the organization’s office and demanded that her daughter be placed on a team.
It didn’t matter that all the teams were comprised of boys.
And when Irish’s sister wanted to take woodworking at school and was told that she couldn’t because it was only for boys, her mother made it possible.
"She was a true advocate for us," says Irish. "And she encouraged us to pursue our passions. I never knew women couldn’t do things because of society’s views. But then, as I got older, I began to take note of the reality of certain situations.
"This became very clear to me when I decided to become a firefighter and saw that there were so few women in the field."
She adds, "Volunteering at Camp Blaze allows me to be an advocate – to help instill in young women that they can be a firefighter, that they can do this or anything else they want.
"It’s important for them to believe in themselves – that they’re strong enough, smart enough – and that with determination, discipline and lots of effort, they will be successful. The only barriers are within themselves."
Stone explains that lack of exposure to the career of firefighting is one of the main obstacles for women interested in pursuing the profession.
She points to the fact that recruitment often does not reach many women because the fire service is still male dominated.
She adds, "Several West Coast big cities have at least 10 percent women in their departments, but in other parts of the country, it’s still very traditional with few women."
A number of the participants at Camp Blaze, like Mickey McLain, go on to become firefighters or work as EMTs and many of them return to volunteer at the camp.
McLain, 21, attended Camp Blaze in 2005. She had been a fire cadet with the Seattle Fire Department prior to going to the camp.
"I knew I wanted to be a firefighter ever since I was about 12," says the Edmonds woman. "I was burned in a car accident when I was a child and I spent a lot of time at the Northwest Burn Foundation, so I was often around firefighters. They encouraged me to become a cadet.
"The camp experience really just sealed it for me. I loved every minute of it. It was challenging and physically demanding, but I proved I could do it."
Today, McLain is a volunteer firefighter for the Skyway Department.
She is also a full time student at University of Washington, majoring in society, ethics and human behavior. She hopes to use her degree to further her career as a fulltime firefighter in the future.
"The camp was invaluable to me," emphasizes McLain. "It allowed me to understand that, as a woman, I can belong and be respected in a profession like firefighting."