Over the past few months wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in California. Families are losing their homes and everything they've ever owned. Animals are scared. (Shoutout to the LA hometown hero who rescued the baby bunny.) And the Santa Ana winds are making headlines again for blowing embers and flames up and down the coast.
But when wildfires strike, 25-year-old Bailey McDade, a “granola geek turned badass of the brush fire” hikes toward the flames. "I was a good kid. I loved to play outside," the firefighter says of her youth. "Always barefoot, always running around in the woods. And always playing sports. I feel like that's a huge part of my career choice. It feels like I'm still on a sports team." After studying Wildlife Science at Virginia Tech and serving with AmeriCorps, Bailey followed her love of environmental biology all the way down to Belize and back up to the Yukon studying wildcats. Her continued interest in everything outdoors led to her current role as a wildland firefighter, noting that on her worst day, she “wants to be sitting on a log in the woods somewhere.”
"I never get to talk to anybody about my job," she tells us when we speak. Which, makes sense considering during fire season Bailey can work up to 160+ hours. "My job can be a lot of different things," she explains. There's no typical "day in the life."
"Some days it's going to the station and waiting for a call, but for large fires, which we get sent to all over the country," she says, "it's typically about 200 hours per assignment, or 14 day stretches." #Hero.
She eats on the fire lines. Sleeps on the fire lines. "The job is all about being flexible. You wake up, you breakfast and then you get your assignment. I could be on a fire line, or cutting down dead trees and brush. Doing structure protection or putting up sprinkler systems around houses. Or we could be standing right in the flames."
When she’s face-to-face with the flames—close enough to feel the heat on her face and in her lungs—her pants, shirt, and face shroud made with flame-resistant plastic fabric help keep her protected as she stands waste-high in the heart of the fire.
Contrary to city firefighters, as a wildland firefighter Bailey says she doesn't wear much. "Everything that we use we have to carry on our backs," she explains. She Bailey and her team wear specialized fire gear. "It kind of just looks like cargo pants and a button down shirt. It feels like cloth, but it's a fire-resistant plastic blend." Everything needs to be durable enough to withstand 200 hours, 14 days straight. Part of the reason the gear is different is because she and her team are hiking into the fire. "We can spend a full day hiking," she says. "We sleep in it, we eat in it. We live in it for weeks at a time. Every pound counts when you're hiking straight up a mountain. We don't have the luxury of going back to our trucks very often. We might have to walk ten miles in our gear."
Which, isn't a bad thing for the self-described "antsy" woman. "I love to be active," she says. "Sometimes with fire we say there's a hurry up and wait mentality. You may not be doing anything that you think is a big deal that day, but it's part of a much bigger operation. You might be digging a trench for 14 days straight and not feeling like you're doing anything, but that might save a community." She says, "My hardest days are when I'm sedentary."
An environmental biologist turned badass of the brushfire, Bailey is currently the only woman on her crew. "There are other women on other crews, but I'm the only one on mine," she shares. "I can't say that I feel the difference. We all pack the same weight, wear the same gear, and do the same job. I sometimes have to remind myself that women in this field and in general, we don't have to prove anything. These guys are like my brothers. They've been there for me through hard times. Those guys are willing to carry me out of a forest."
They've even nicknamed her. "The guys on my crew call me Fern Gully, but it's all in good fun."
Bailey is willing to make the same sacrifices for her team. "I'm working with a lot of people who are like me. And I'm working with a lot of people who intentionally chose this job. Nobody accidentally becomes a firefighter. We're all in sleeping bags on the ground, sleeping next to each other under the stars. We eat sitting in the dirt. We're there for a very serious job, but sometimes it's really fun to be around other people who also enjoy this lifestyle.
And as for her solo female status? "Somebody is always going to be able to do more pull-ups than me, or hike faster," she admits. "But I'm also going to be faster and stronger than someone else. At the end of the day we hike into fires together, we fight them together, and we hike out together."
If you want to help the 200,000+ people in California affected by the wildfires we're listing several ways to help below.
Ready Ventura County has set up a texting service. Text UWVC to 41444 and 100% of your donation will go directly to those impacted by the fires.
The American Red Cross is looking for volunteers to help evacuees.
The Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation is accepting donations through its website.
The Humane Society of Ventura County is also accepting donations.
There are a number of verified fundraisers on GoFundMe where you can donate to relief efforts.