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How I spent summer vacation

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

On a rare rainy day in late July, 24 high school girls are taking their turns in an unusual classroom off Interstate 5 near Snoqualmie Pass.

The walls are bare of pictures or decorations. The floor is a bare concrete slab. Each window shutter is black steel and the room is covered in soot.

The girls hunker as a group in one corner, listening to instructions and observing the other side of the room.

In that opposite corner, a fire is growing quickly, fueled by a stack of dry pallets.

Welcome to Camp Blaze.

Each girl, in firefighting bunker gear, helmet, oxygen tank and breathing mask, gets a turn using the fire hose to douse the flames.

After what seems like 30 minutes, the girls come out of the room for a critique of their work. They are hot, sweat-soaked and having a great time.

For a week in the summer, high school girls from across the nation and Canada find out what it’s like –– and what it takes –– to work in the fire service. They learn and practice first aid techniques, cut open cars to extricate people from wrecks, climb aerial ladders, rappel, practice search and rescue techniques and put out fires inside and outside.

“It’s intense,” Heidi Lang, a Federal Way resident, said after coming out of the fire tower at the Washington State Fire Academy. The training ground in North Bend covers several acres and looked like the scene of several simultaneous accidents. Wrecked cars here, overturned tankers there, and railcars on fire are all part of the training for firefighters attending the academy.

And, for a few days while there wasn’t an academy class, the Camp Blaze participants.

They said the week was a lot of fun, there was also a lot to learn and it was a great deal of work.

On the second to last day, the girls learned the characteristics of a fire when it’s inside a building. They stayed close to the floor as the heat, starting at the ceiling and coming down, built up in the room. There is a safe area they can work in near the floor. If they stand up, their helmets will start to melt and, worse, they will get burned.

But the girls are calm in the situation and their instructors are in the room. They are experienced firefighters and officers, men and women. As the fire grows, the instructors talk through their masks about what is happening and how the campers can use the fire hose to clear the room of smoke, cool it down, and bank the stream of water off walls and ceilings to douse the flames.

Camp Blaze is a relatively new program; there have been four camps. The founders are all female firefighters, paramedics or officers who were team leaders at a 1999 camp in San Diego, Calif. They decided to create a free camp for young women 16 to 19 years old.

Lang heard about the camp from her father, an emergency room doctor, and applied. She is interested in being a nurse, but also likes firefighting. Lang, a student at Bellarmine Prep, might consider a career as a paramedic.

Women still make up a small percentage of the firefighting community in the United States. Federal Way Fire Department has two female firefighters. Tacoma Fire Department has several, and the chief, a woman, recently announced her retirement after a long career.

Fire departments and businesses donate equipment and food. The Tacoma and Seattle fire departments are contributors.

Professional firefighters donate their time and expertise, said Suzy Rueblin, a founding director of the program.

There is an application that costs $25 for consideration to the camp. Girls must be in good physical shape, covered by health insurance, write an essay, have a good attitude and be willing to participate in all the activities.

While the young women are introduced to firefighting, Rueblin said the camp isn’t meant as a recruitment tool.

“If they join, that’s a bonus,” she said.

Camp Blaze’s mission is to build self-esteem and confidence, improve participants’ athletic ability, encourage team work and broadening the girls’ skills.

Rueblin related how a former camper is now a college student with plans to get a master’s degree in economics. It’s a long way from her days before the camp, where she was in trouble with the law.

Camp Blaze moves around the West Coast to make it easier for some of the girls to attend and for supporting departments to host the event, Rueblin said.

The firefighters who serve as team leaders during the camp give up their days off and vacation time to do it, she said. Like the campers, the team leaders also have to go through a selection process.

About half of the team is made up of new counselors, and the program is popular enough the directors ask some veteran instructors to step aside and give others a chance to join the program.

The last night of the camp, unlike the rest of the week, was like a traditional summer camp: Skits.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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