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A Pinup-Picture Dispute Burns Out of Control

November 10, 2002|Bob Sipchen | Bob Sipchen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, is associate editor of The Times' editorial pages.

A year after 343 firefighters died trying to save lives in the World Trade Center, at a time when beefcake calendars of macho firemen decorate many a women's dorm, a legendary fire crew is at risk of being disbanded for inappropriate titillation.

Monika Miller is the sole woman on the Los Padres Hot Shots, a band of wild-land firefighters stationed in the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara. This summer, she and her fellow crew members voted on which pictures they'd use to decorate their two "crew buggies" -- the claustrophobic 10-passenger trucks they use to travel to wildfires anywhere in the West. Miller taped shots of breaking waves from Surfer magazine beside her seat. The men took scissors to Maxim magazine. With Miller's approval, pictures of cold beer and hot women wriggling their barely covered rear ends went up on the rigs' ceiling and walls.

At 29, Miller is probably too young to remember when Madonna was scandalous, let alone what bra burning was supposed to symbolize. The pictures, she says, didn't offend her. But someone outside the crew got a peek and did take offense -- and photographs. "X-rated Pinups Steam Up the Forest," read a typically hyperbolic headline in the local press.

Down came the pictures. Then, arguing that the trucks' dubious decor reflected widespread abuse against female Forest Service employees in California, a former employee who monitors sexual harassment claims in the wake of several anti-discrimination lawsuits began pressuring the agency to disband the crew and dump its bosses.

The blowup has the insular U.S. Forest Service buzzing like a startled diamondback. It also offers insight into why peace remains tenuous in America's mixed-gender workforce, where men still do stupid things, old-school feminists refuse to abandon outdated scorched-earth tactics, and too many employers overcompensate for past discrimination by treating any hint of wounded sensibilities with frenzied overkill. The ironic result is institutionalized inequality -- to the detriment of men and women.

No one who has worked for the Forest Service, as I did for five fire seasons in the 1970s, can doubt that the agency, run for a century by rural, conservative men, could be antagonistic to some of the women -- often urban, liberal women -- bravely integrating it. And while things are better now (the top position at the Los Padres National Forest is held by a woman), I'm sure some bosses and workers still treat women colleagues more harshly -- or gingerly -- because they aren't men.

That's why conversations with Miller and other female veterans of the Los Padres Hot Shots left me hoping that -- bonehead posting of pictures aside -- the rest of the working world catches up to that crew's egalitarian policies before my two daughters enter the labor force.

Women like Miller can't imagine a time when an employee might shut up and take abuse because of her gender, and they have no patience with would-be protectors. What she wants from those who would act in her interests, she says, is what the crew gives her: respect. "I'm treated as Monika. As a worker. As somebody who's going to pound dirt."

Which isn't to say that, by some definitions of the word, she's not "harassed."

"We all are," Miller says. "It's part of the job. Part of life. That's the fun."

Sound like a "hostile work environment"? Consider that concept from a Hot Shot's perspective. At its least pleasant, wild-land firefighting means taking off on a moment's notice to fight a conflagration on, say, Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs. Around noon, you spill out of your buggy and hike uphill to the fire. In 118-degree heat. Without a trail. Wearing heavy gear, including canteens that hold less water than your thirst craves. For 10 or 16 or even 24 hours you hack, grub and chain-saw along a wall of flames, dodging rocks bigger than your hard hat, breathing wind-whipped embers, maybe grabbing a couple of hours sleep beside a smoldering stump before starting over again. Eager to cull weakness and rightly viewing whiners as a safety threat, bosses harangue and colleagues haze ("Oh, my!" gasp folks who work at a comfortable desk).

There aren't many reasons to take this job. One is money. With hazardous-duty pay, it's possible to earn as much in a five- or six-month fire season as many blue-collar workers earn in a year. Another is the rush. At its all-too-rare best, wild-land firefighting is an adventure sport. Finally, there's the almost familial camaraderie. Burning to death is painful. Crews count on each other. Morale has to run high. Which means crew leaders must forge more than muscles.

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