All-Female Crew Pursues Careers in Firefighting

The California Conservation Corps and Edison International have partnered to help increase the number of women in the firefighting field.
Skip to content
Stories : Giving Back
Stories : Giving Back

All-Female Crew Pursues Careers in Firefighting

The California Conservation Corps and Edison International have partnered to help increase the number of women in the firefighting field.
Photo Credit: Maria Hedrick
Video Credit: Roberto Lazarte, Joseph Foulk and Ernesto Sanchez

Engracia Cortes’ son Noah, 7, came home from school recently with a paper he had written. It said: “When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter just like my mom.”

At 25, Cortes is in her second year of the all-female firefighting training program with the California Conservation Corps. Started in 2017, the program has 18 female trainees and is the only one of its kind in the CCC.

“I love it. It’s exactly what I want to do in life — help the environment and help others,” said Cortes, who is from San Bernardino and is now pursuing a full-time career in firefighting. “I love to work hard and this kicks my butt.”

In addition to passing all the written and physical tests required for wildland firefighter training in the state, the program’s female firefighters train each week on various drills, including use of tools like chain saws, mop-ups, creating fire breaks and clearing fire lines.

Female CCC Corpsmembers create a fire break near Lake Mathews in Riverside County.
Female CCC Corpsmembers, including Anna Atkinson (forefront) create a fire break near Lake Mathews in Riverside County.

The CCC’s all-female program was created in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and was formed to create a direct hiring pipeline, not only with the bureau but also with local fire agencies. Only in its second year, the CCC hopes to start seeing its female firefighters hired in a year once full training has been completed.

“We want females to know that firefighting is a field they can get into. That they can blaze a trail and pathway to this career,” said Rhody Soria, CCC district director for the Inland Empire District, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the eastern Sierra. “This is the first time in Corps history that we have an all-female crew.”

Founded in 1976, the CCC is the largest and oldest conservation corps in the country. Its mission is to protect and enhance the state’s natural resources and communities. Edison International has long partnered with the CCC and recently provided a $500,000 grant to support its wildfire mitigation efforts, part of which is supporting the all-female fire crew.

Female CCC Corpsmembers create a fire break near Lake Mathews in Riverside County.
Female CCC Corpsmembers, including Engracia Cortes (right) create a fire break near Lake Mathews in Riverside County.

“This grant is part of a larger $3 million Edison International partnership with nonprofits in support of wildfire mitigation, prevention and community resiliency efforts,” said Caroline Choi, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs for Edison International and Southern California Edison. “By investing in these programs, we are partnering with communities we serve to help increase safety around California’s devastating wildfires.”

The CCC’s all-female crew has already been on six fires this year — including the Tram Fire in Palm Springs, the Copper Fire in Nevada and the R6 Fire in northern California — helping to cut fire lines and mopping up to ensure the fires are 100% extinguished.

The female firefighters work with safety as their No. 1 priority and are trained to be acutely aware of their surroundings. Still, a recent nighttime firefight gave Cortes a moment of pause.

“You can hear the trees dropping in the forest from the fire,” she said. “It was kind of scary, but you have to be alert.”

CCC Corpsmembers Anna Atkinson (left) and Engracia Cortes.
CCC Corpsmembers Anna Atkinson (left) and Engracia Cortes.

Anna Atkinson, 21, is in her second year of the all-female firefighting program. She first learned about the CCC from a friend who had joined and told her “you get paid to camp.”

At first, Atkinson was part of a different program helping to build trails. But when she heard the CCC was looking for female participants for its firefighting program, she decided to sign up.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “It’s hard work, but we have a good time and we all get along.”

At Canyon Lake in Menifee recently, Atkinson was with the female crew doing fuel breaks so the fire would not reach the area’s homes. Several residents stopped by to thank them.

“It is amazing to help communities. To see the end result of saving trees and stopping fires from reaching people’s homes,” said Atkinson, who hopes to become a supervisor in the CCC and continue firefighting. “There is a lot of pride you feel of the job you do.”

To learn more about the CCC’s all-female firefighting program, click here. Interested in signing up with the CCC? Apply online

Members of the California Conservations Corps' all-female firefighter training program.
Members of the California Conservations Corps' all-female firefighter training program.