Eighteen high school girls from across the region got a glimpse of what it's like to train to fight fires, while also battling their own fears, at a hands-on camp offered by fire departments in partnership with the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona.
Hanging off the edge of a 50-foot tower at the new Northwest Fire District Training Center near Ina Road and Interstate 10, 15-year-old Selena Sanchez hesitated to take her first step down the side of the building during a rappelling exercise. She inched her way down, moving slowly and carefully before she lost her footing a few feet from the top. The San Miguel High School student slipped once more before making her way to the bottom, where a group of girls clapped and cheered for her.
"It's really scary, 'cause I'm scared of heights," Sanchez said when her feet were firmly planted on the ground. "I guess now that you've done all this stuff you kind of feel like you can do anything, especially when you're scared of something like that and you did it," she added.
Her twin sister, Sarina, was thrilled to take in the sights of the entire city after climbing to the top of an 80-foot firetruck ladder.
"It was better than any roller coaster at Disneyland," Sarina Sanchez said.
Camp Fury participants, who range in age from 14 to 18, spend the four days of the overnight camp learning about the leadership, team-building, safety and training components of firefighting. Northwest Fire, the Tucson Fire Department and the Girl Scouts have co-sponsored the camp since 2009. This year, representatives of two out-of-state fire departments are attending, hoping to replicate it in their communities.
"We're doing this camp because we want to create visibility for the profession," said Cheryl Horvath, division chief of operations for Northwest Fire. "We want young girls to see that this is something they can grow up to become, because we think part of the problem of recruiting and retaining women in the fire service is there's simply not enough of us.
"We're still battling with the traditional interpretation of what a firefighter is, what that visual image is, and so the reason for the camp is to try to change that."
Levi Cosby, a 16-year-old from Tombstone High School, was inspired by the female firefighters who help run the camp.
"The women working in this program are officially my role models," she said. "They just show you so much and you wouldn't expect to find them here."
Only about 4 percent of the nation's paid firefighting staff are women, Horvath said. Northwest Fire has four female firefighters.
"The quandary is creating an environment where the girls can see these opportunities but then sustaining that environment in the organization, and that comes to the culture side of it," Horvath said. "That comes to fire-service leaders and fire chiefs stepping up and making the right decision that creates the environment to bring in a more diverse workforce."
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4224.