When West Georgia’s Antoinette Diaz shares the details of her summer with her friends and teammates, they will probably be left in awe as she talks about the rigors of her summer job. She spent her summer months gaining on-the-job experience battling the Wallow Fire, the largest forest fire in Arizona history.
Her father, Tony is a former forest firefighter and dispatcher for the Forest Service in New Mexico. When one of her friends told her they were looking for females to do the job, she thought it would be a great opportunity and applied.
After finishing the spring semester, Diaz returned to her home state of New Mexico where she took an intense two-week training course. Absorbing all of the book knowledge she could about fighting forest fires, Diaz began on-the-job training.
“There’s a lot of physical training – we would go on hikes and run and lift weights,” Diaz said. “They would also take us out to the forest and do practice hose lays from the engines, and put us in different situations.”
Although Diaz had just completed a softball season in which she started 25 contests and tossed 20 complete games, her body was still not ready for the extreme physical difficulty of fighting forest fires. Firefighters are required to wear a 45-pound pack with a helmet, and carry a tool like an ax or digging tool. The packs include a fire shelter in them in case they come in contact with the fire and have no escape route.
“You have to be in a different kind of shape,” Diaz said. “You have to carry something heavy on your back for long periods of time and be able to hike with it. It’s a lot of pressure on your legs.”
While those requirements might seem tough enough, her first assignment was on the Wallow Fire. The historic fire burned for weeks in eastern Arizona, destroying over 538,000 acres of land.
“Going into it, I was excited that we got the call,” Diaz said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I learned all about it in classes, but it is still much different that driving up to and seeing this huge fire.”
Diaz arrived at a camp that was set up at a rodeo arena with 3,000 firefighters and engines everywhere. They could see the fire roaring through the forest from camp and smoke all around, and it was then she started to get a little anxious about the situation. She called her father, who calmed her down and related his first experience at a big fire.
“I talked to my dad on the phone, and he said they wouldn’t put me in a dangerous situation, and they would take care of me,” Diaz said. “We woke up in the morning and got our assignment to go provide structure protection for some really nice homes in Alpine, Ariz., that the fire was coming close to.”
While she did not encounter the Wallow Fire close up, Diaz did respond to several fires in the local forest near Las Cruces where she stayed this summer. There were especially dry conditions in the region, and all it would take was a lightning strike in the area to start a brush fire.
“We had to hike in and make a big line around the fire,” Diaz said. “It is pretty hard. We did a lot of hiking in tough terrain.”
What she did not expect is how much the job can wear on a person. After fighting a fire for several hours in the blazing heat, you can return to the station and get called out for another one immediately, no matter how tired you are.
“It’s a very mentally-demanding job,” Diaz said. “You have to be in physical shape, but once you get to the fire, there is no turning back. You have to stay there and can’t just back out of it.”
Diaz believes the experience can only enhance her strength as a softball pitcher.
“It makes you mentally strong,” Diaz said. “I think it helped me a lot as a pitcher because you’re in situations that you have to fight through, and are mental. It helped me in that aspect.”
Despite the difficulty of the job, the Mathematics major is already looking forward to her next firefighting adventure.
“I really liked it a lot,” Diaz said. “It keeps you in shape, and you’re doing something for the common good. I’m definitely going back to do it next summer.”