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Missoula women Zona Lindemann, Dolly Browder and Marcia Hogan, from left, were part of the first crew of female firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, hired to do mostly mop-up work in 1971. The three reunited Thursday afternoon at the Lolo National Forest booth at the Western Montana Fair.

One day, Zona Lindemann told a couple of men she had spent the season fighting fires.

"They didn't believe me. I had to get my card out and show it to them," Lindemann said.

That was a few decades ago, and women weren't just an anomaly fighting fire, they were unheard of. 

On Thursday, Lindemann, Dolly Browder and Marcia Hogan reunited as part of the first crew of female firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, according to the Lolo National Forest.

Libby Langston, who brought the women together as part of the Lolo National Forest's booth at the Western Montana Fair, said the three women were the catalyst to change, and they worked as firefighters even before cities in the U.S. hired women for those jobs. 

They were so unusual, Mademoiselle magazine featured Browder in 1974 in a story about women doing risky jobs. The story also profiled a bull rider, Hollywood stunt woman and motorcycle jumper.

It was subtitled "None But the Brave Need Apply."

Back then, the three Missoula women didn't know they were making history. They just knew they wanted good work that paid well.

"No women could be on a fire crew. This was 1971. So we just started our own," said Browder, 69.

On Thursday, the three were together for the first time since they worked on fires, and they swapped stories and reminisced about paving the way for women to work on any firefighting crew.

"The Forest Service was really resistant, and we had to really pressure them to change," Browder said. 

***

Marcia Hogan answered the call to be on a firefighting crew because she'd worked a couple of summers as a time and attendance clerk.

"I'd see these time slips where people had a lot of hours and were getting paid more than me," said Hogan, 63.

She decided she didn't want to be a clerk anymore.

Browder was looking for work, and she placed an ad in the Missoulian calling for female firefighters.

"I was a teacher, and I just wanted something to do in the summer and get paid for it. And I thought, why not fight fires? It didn't seem that hard," she said.

Lindemann, 74, had already worked as a canoe guide and slept on the ground, and she figured the job was a fit when she learned about it.

"I was also teaching, so when Marcia came along and said, 'We've got this women's fire crew, and we need people,' I thought, 'perfect,' " Lindemann said.

So the pioneers hit the forest, mostly mopping up, and as planned, they earned better paychecks. The Mademoiselle story put the pay at $3.55 an hour, and as much as $300 for six days.

"We were the first female crew in the United States to be paid," Browder said.

***

The helicopters were a highlight for the crew, but they could have done without the cat calling.

"It was intense," Browder said of the job. "My favorite part was riding in the helicopter."

After Vietnam, the Hueys were up for grabs, and Lindemann also remembers the treat of riding the enormous choppers.

"On this one fire, they hauled us in on the Hueys, and I'd always been interested in airplanes and helicopters," Lindemann said. "So to ride a Huey?"

One time, the women were hit with retardant while doing mop-up, and to this day, they believe it might have been intentional. They had named their group the Red Star Crew, and they intended the political statement.

In the field, men whistled at them, took their pictures and gave them questionable advice, like, "Go back to the kitchen where you belong."

"Just being on the crew out in the woods with the other male crews, it was really hard," Browder said.

***

After fighting fires, the women took separate career paths. Browder worked as a midwife, Lindemann landscaped for Caras Nursery and Hogan continued on with the Forest Service.

About a year ago, Hogan mentioned the Red Star Crew to Langston. The two are friends, and Langston is always looking for an interesting idea to feature at the fair.

"To my surprise, I did a little more research, and that is when I discovered they were the first paid women firefighters in the United States," Langston said.

The women had to fight with the Forest Service to become part of its regular crews instead of on a crew separated by gender, Browder said.

The agency acquiesced, and now, she considers it one of the best examples of a national organization that puts women in leadership positions. The last three Region 1 supervisors have been women, for instance.

Lindemann ventured a guess as to why.

"They didn't want to face you again," Lindemann told Browder.

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