Tara Rothwell and Colton Rothwell

Recorded June 25, 2020 Archived June 25, 2020 40:19 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019856


Tara Rothwell (55) and son, Colton Rothwell (20), discuss Tara's experience as a Smokejumper in the 1990s and what that achievement meant for her then and what it means for her son now.

Subject Log / Time Code

Tara says was motivated to become a smokejumper after working for the forest service. A man told her she would never become a smokejumper and that set her determination.
Colton asks what did she learn from all of that?
Tara explains that she pretty much raised herself, so she had the idea that there wasn't anything she couldn't do. She tells Colton, "I passed that onto you, no limits. People don't care what you say. They care what you can do right there in the moment."
Tara says there are men who would have never thought she was capable.
Colton expresses displeasure that his mom had to break her back for people to value her.
Tara says that her doing the work as a woman doing this work at 110 lbs. made it seem not so macho anymore.
Tara describes, "My pack was 118 lbs. and I weighed 114 lbs. It was mind over matter. One foot in front of another."


  • Tara Rothwell
  • Colton Rothwell

Recording Location

Virtual Recording

Partnership Type



StoryCorps uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text and Natural Language API to provide machine-generated transcripts. Transcripts have not been checked for accuracy and may contain errors. Learn more about our FAQs through our Help Center or do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions.

00:00 Rothwell, I'm 20 years old. Today is Thursday June 25th 2020. I'm in Missoula Montana, and I'm here with my mom.

00:14 Tara Rothwell, I'm 55 today is June 25th 2020 and I'm in Missoula Montana with my son cold.

00:27 Awesome

00:30 So I guess we can begin.

00:34 How did you get into?

00:37 Fire start with that when I was about your age and trying to figure out how to pay for college. I worked wine summer as a Wrangler I made $300 a month and wasn't cutting it. So the next summer I went home I grew up in a town or not. Very many people went to college if any and I looked at my classmates who were making money and they're all logging. So I thought you know, I'm going to go get a job as a logger.

01:08 And I went to a couple of the logging outfits. Oh my gosh, they just left me out of the office. But the second or third one eye when she said you should just go down to the 4 service because they have to hire women. So I went down to the forest service and I got a job marking Timber on a Timber crew and part of that job until being trained as a wildland firefighter since we're out in the forest. We were often the first people to go to a fire cuz we were already out there and that's kind of how it all started.

01:42 When I get stopped working for the forest service every summer and paying for my education.

01:49 So

01:54 If you want to talk about I guess.

01:59 Why did you want to keep pursuing fire like making it to a level of being a smokejumper the point I went through undergrad. I got a real job. I decided to go back to school and got a master's and just every time I fall back to work for the forest service and by then I'd been on a helicopter crew again on an engine crew at 21st and crew and my I also I got my Master's and I was going to go into the Peace Corps.

02:38 And I was sort of setup for that but my heart wasn't really in it because I got assigned to go to Africa and I really wanted to go to Latin America cuz I wanted to learn about Latin American culture and learn to speak Spanish. So my heart wasn't really in it, but I was signed up for when I was working on a fire crew in Idaho and at the beginning of the year at chainsaws at school. I got paired with a smokejumper who said you'd be a really good smoke number. You should think about it. Yeah, whatever. I'm going in the Peace Corps. Well end of the summer. I'm working on a fire with another smokejumper to Laura kind of talking about what fire Crews and what to do and it came up that oh, yeah, I will.

03:26 Let me know I could go do this thing. And he told me you will never be able to become smoke jumper.

03:33 That was that I was going to become smooth Walker. Why do you think she said that?

03:42 Probably cuz I wait about 110 lb and you had to weigh a minimum of 120 because I was a woman because that's just not what you do.

03:56 The reason you guys because you wanted to prove him wrong and I never ended up seeing again in my life. I can do this thing, and I'm going to do it now.

04:11 Are you glad you did it? I'm really glad I did it cuz you wouldn't be here and it's been a leak rate.

04:21 Rewarding but very difficult.

04:24 Almost, you know, I jumped right into the fourth year and

04:31 I wouldn't give it up for the world.

04:37 And I made enough money to get my next graduate degree. That was nice.

04:49 Talked about this earlier, but what was rookie training like was the environment like in there when you're done?

05:03 So for probably the first time since I was 16 or so, I had a. Of time at the end of that fire season until the spring when I got a little kid planting trees that I didn't work. And so I spent all my time praying for this thing and luckily I have a big advantage that I had a master's degree in exercise science so lunch from Buddy told me what this thing was going to until I was able to make up my own training program, which I think

05:42 Not just men but women in the past have not been helpful because I didn't really know what they're getting into Wild on how to be ready for it. But so I just completely dedicated myself to lifting weights gaining 10 pounds getting stronger while maintaining my aerobic fitness.

06:06 And

06:10 Yeah, I think I showed up for Ricky training as ready as I could have been.

06:19 Wasn't necessarily in favor of men succeeding in women not succeeding. It was a lack of knowledge set up to.

06:33 For women to spell I think the training was based on what the job was really going to be and also a mental and physical toughness that they were looking to select or and weed out those it didn't have that. They were going to put you just through the wringer for a month.

06:55 Beach

06:58 What was so when I showed up my particular rookie class. We had 16 candidates.

07:08 And there were three total of us women and Friday 3. I was in the only woman left and at the end of the month are only nine of us left. So out of 1609.

07:24 And how are you the only woman last?

07:29 I restricted just like you guys there was no because I've been in the fire fighting field enough, but I had friends over smokejumpers whatever basis I had. This guy that told me I would never be able to do it without another base and I knew that I was being watched just not only within the base where I was training cuz obviously all the X-Men the guy that were there to fight, you know, there were already had the jobs done. We're working a smokejumpers waiting for fire calls. They were watching all of us this evening was going to make it but I was also being watched by all the other faces and

08:29 There was a a crew on TV crew that came over from Seattle and and they asked to do it if they were going to do a little story on the you know, the new smokejumpers in training and they ended up they wanted to focus on me. I didn't want to be focused on but they kind of sold it to me with will will make sure your mom gets to see this which by the way they never did.

08:52 So I agreed to and that was kind of a big mistake that I didn't repeat again in my career. I did people Sports Illustrated once but that's because your dad was like he's so proud of my wife was in Sports Illustrated. But other than that, I never again made the other guy didn't know they were bitter and in particular a couple of them or just really upset that I've been singled out Challenger masculinity because you got all this attention and they're doing the same thing and they thought they were all talking great. Yeah. I don't know.

09:42 I don't know. But if I had it all to do again, I wouldn't I wouldn't do it.

09:50 So you meant Dad pretty early on right when you go through Ricky training.

09:59 You you know, they're your rookie Bros in your refer to him as a rookie Pro the rest your life these people that you go through this really intense dislike going through some kind of paramilitary a meeting. I'll probably similar we we know they're doing pack has where we're hiking with a hundred pounds and all day long Kush UPS pull-ups sit-ups all these crazy exercises running and then you have the the training modules where you're climbing up this Tower and stimulating jumping out of an airplane in my class. It was but so you're you're really closed and then your dad was an athletic trainer.

10:56 He's going to finish college and not and on our third day. We had a time. It was one of our class. It was one of the places where you could be what's called washed out and washing out men pack your bags are going home. You're done. You're not going to make it out to the things that you had two things that you had to pass. And one of them was 110 pounds in 3 minutes over flat. Will they made their flat on asphalt? It was pretty hot. It was a thing. I was most worried about it came in barely weighing 120 lb for the rest of my smokejumper career, I would have to put pennies in my shoes to make sure I made weight when on the first day of of the physical test because every year you get retested when you can if you don't make weight, if you don't do the run to pull up, whatever you go home. So anyway,

11:56 I was you know worried but I I did it I didn't have any problems with that but I got these huge blisters that covered a whole lot to my feet. And so I kind of got so your dad because he took care of my feet. So I was able to keep going through the rest of the month of training with these horrible blisters that I gotten on my feet.

12:30 I guess what?

12:32 What lessons this is what I want to know is what lessons from being in such a macho environment and powering through it. But also just like doing something really intense and hard.

12:49 What's the odds against you? What did you learn from? All of that that you feel like you passed on to me and Caleb?

12:58 Wow, well, I think said a few things I think one like I look back and I go guy. Why did I even think I could do this? But as you know, I had a pretty rough childhood and I pretty much raised myself and my siblings and so I think that sense of

13:21 Having always taking care of myself. I didn't have these ideas that you can't do something that I could do something and I think I passed another thing that I can see and you and Caleb that I learned was people don't care what you say they care what you can do. And so there was no like saying I've done this and I climb this peak and I just done this rock climb, and I thought this fire and I was on This Crew nobody cares.

14:09 They care what you can do when you're there in the moment with them and I think that you I don't see your Caleb you guys are going around and broke. I think that you have the same, you know, especially living here and going to college in Missoula. I started climbing a lot when I first came to school here and I noticed I was getting a lot of respect from people just remember watching in the climbing gym and it felt good. I was a lot of like except like it's accepting this from Mike lot of men.

15:04 I don't know. I'm not usually approachable cuz I'm different but

15:10 I know exactly what you're saying is they only valid me based on like my

15:14 Physical ability that might not what I think about what I value.

15:21 And I was kind of in a hard thing for me to realize and

15:25 Build a relationship with me in the outdoors, you know, I see it with you and your friends too and that you aren't the one they're telling them what to do and how to do it. But when things have gone bad, you're the one that they look to for leadership and I just feel like that, you know, my whole career is a smokejumper and I could have done it for 30 years like one of my best friends did there would have been then never I never would have I would have accepted me that I could do this job. No matter what and it really has more to say about them about me. But then there were others who you know, you get on a fire something bad happens like, you know some money racerback what happened and you're the one that helps provide the care and get them out and they realized

16:26 Suorin air

16:30 It's kind of a man takes time because someone has to break their back for them to like respect you and accept you and value your opinion and that's hard.

16:45 Well, that's the latest. I don't think that would be that way for you to some extent. It's that way for the guys to just because some of the bases if you get to rookie training your accepted and then that's a done deal at the particular base where I trained that wasn't the deal you saw the prove yourself and it was

17:14 What was it like jumping out of planes?

17:18 Never ever

17:21 So in my rookie class we had one guy that was kind of afraid of heights and I think because I know but he's a great candidate get on a really intense Hotshot crew had lots of firefighting experience and I think you know, they really wanted him to succeed but you could always tell them we went off for 2 hours at there was a bit of hesitation. And so when we finally got to the point where we're going to make our first job, you know, the tour's off in a plane and you're all sitting in there, but they had me go out first and at that time in my life, I had zero fear of heights. I really didn't have much beer anything and I think they picked up on that knew I wasn't going to stall the door and I was going to go and

18:18 Truth be told I think that uses out of it. I motivate maybe this particular guy and you know that well if the woman doesn't mind is going to have to jump up up but now I wasn't afraid of heights. I really wasn't afraid of much of those types of things until after I had kids you guys ruined it for me anymore. I'm glad sorry to interrupt. Could you describe to me like like paint a picture with words of what it was like the first time you jumped off the plane like, okay, so you went first like what it like, how was it? What did you see what I feel?

19:17 Yeah, so get in a plane and it's the first time I've ever been in a plane with the door off and there's a spider in there who you do also our trainer so somebody we knew and trusted cuz he's been he's been about two weeks doing stuff before you actually jump out of the plane and you go through the motions so much of the practicing of the exit out of the door, you know exactly what to do. But you know when when the pilot is flying and they're picking a spot in there throwing streamers out of the door to see what the thrift is and trying to see where they are going to let you out so that you hit the spot because I look jumping Austin the spots are very small Meadows a very small small places, so they have to time it so that you can run and drift into that small. It's not like a big deal.

20:16 For your first jump is kind of like a big field and I remember just circling up and going up and up and thrown the streamers and then we're coming into the the point where he tells you to get in the door and your husband is way down there and you know, I won't say that I had no fear. I mean there was a lot of adrenaline going but I just did what my trainers had said and when they slapped my leg I jumped and and whoosh and all the sudden and the parachute deployed and it's just quiet and it's really peaceful and you're just drifting they put radios in our pockets. So the trainers on the ground to trying to tell us how to guide our parachutes and toggle down. Well, I didn't have no idea what was going on, but I was on the light in the parachutes are rated for more like

21:14 I want to see like 160 lb camper with gear and I maybe was laying 120. I was supposed to be weighing 120. So I was always going to drift drift less than everybody else, but I caught an updraft and started going down but I didn't realize it and so they're on the radio trying to tell me and I'm just like the longest football. Really realized I need to get down and hit the spot right very peaceful when you jump out of the plane that drill and all goes and yeah, I wouldn't say it's that way once you become a smokejumper and you're jumping into rocks and burning trees and all kinds of crap that you could go into your pretty nervous looking down at which you've got to try to do not to not to hit something bad or go down a big slow for hit rocks or what, you know things that are going to really injure you but in this instance, I didn't know about all those things was very peaceful.

22:15 You just do what do what you were trying to do. They hit your leg and you jump out now.

22:35 Did you realize that?

22:38 You were such a pioneer.

22:42 Industry in what you were doing or were you why were you conscious of like your position?

22:51 So I was like 20.

22:57 26 years old and I I had no idea really but I was a little girl. My favorite thing was Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pioneers and I love the idea of being a Pioneer and interesting had rookie trainer a member at one point.

23:20 During our training. I don't know if we were doing a pack or we had a big pack on a long ways and he was walking with me and he said, you know, you do know your Pioneer not very many women have done this. Now there have been quite a few women before me 20 some odd but in so and I you know, one of our trainers was a was a woman smokejumper, so I didn't ever really think about it that way thinking of women have been doing this, you know, but at the time that year after there was going to be 10 women smoke jumpers in 400 men. It's not that different today don't thing. But anyway, I didn't really hit me in then you know now that I've aged I realized oh, wow, you know that was kind of a pioneering thing to do that that women didn't do that job. And since I've had conversations like

24:18 Big guys in the BLM had a ball of fire kind of deal, you know, he was trying to figure out why aren't there more women and you know tonight. I don't know the answer to that question. So obviously, but if you don't made me think yeah, you know and even now I don't know the exact numbers but women have been smokejumping since 1982 was the first woman and I was 1992 and I still don't think there's probably been more than 80 or 90 women's portal that have ever been a smokejumper how many 400

25:08 Bro

25:11 So yeah, I wasn't it. I was kind of a Kind which is cool. It's what I always wanted to be. I spent a large part of 1994 jumping out of Missoula in Oregon, but you may not be there all summer and then my last year which is going to be 1995. I actually had transferred it was going to jump out of Missoula, but my season was cut short because I got accepted into physician assistant school and I ended up leaving.

25:53 And going to school and then starting a family and nursing.

26:05 I have a question.

26:08 Richard

26:15 Oh, I wanted to ask I remembered.

26:20 When people ask about my parents and I was like they met smokejumping, they're both smokejumpers and they're always liked all cool and then like when they think about it and I like your mom was a really really and then they probably need me and see how teeny-tiny I am and no

26:56 Yeah, you are. There's been a few married smokejumper couples. There was a great story and outside magazine about about one of the couples in.

27:12 Do you know minute because I think if you're not going to make a career out of it. I mean, I really enjoy summer nail like going backpacking with you guys climbing the Grand Teton all the stuff we do when you fight fire. You have no summer you don't do anything. That's like fire. Yeah, I think but if you did, I just report it to you know, you are.

27:54 I don't think I'd like it. If you could do it. You don't want it at all.

28:03 Did the German people to be a certain age?

28:12 Will you have to

28:14 Do you have to have fire experience?

28:17 So, you know and then you kind of work your way up the hierarchy, you know, you may start on an engine crew where you're just driving on an engine. You may be on a pallet a crew where you're still initial attack. You're taking a helicopter or maybe repelling out of it or Landing helicopter and going to remote areas fires. And then there's Hotshot Crews 20 person cruise that do initial attack, but I'm bigger fires. And so that you have to have accumulated this base of experience and that really is the prerequisites to become a smokejumper.

28:58 I think that you know for me I actually went around to a few different bases and

29:08 What's the word for it? I sold myself because I had this degree in exercise science. And because I had a bit of an athletic resume Ultra marathons and things that it seem like, you know, not only did I have the firefighting experience. It seemed like I had the ability to figure out how to train to be able to be a smokejumper.

29:37 I think the base that hired me the the one of the foreman was pretty forward-thinking and she actually commissioned me to write a book on strength and conditioning for smokejumping to write a little manual so he could give it out to Rookies on you know, the recruit in the fall you buy in the van then, you know, you're going in the spring so you have you know, 4 5 6 months to get ready and a lot of people think it's different now because there's so much online CrossFit and Mountain tactical Fitness. There's all these programs that you can find, you know, but I wrote a manual specifically for

30:24 Bendy gives rookie smokejumpers because it was really frustrating to them to invest this, you know recruitment time and everything and then and then people would show up and they were gone in two days or they would show up and they would get injured, you know, like, you know, what a knee injury or something that maybe could have been prevented if they were more physically prepared, right?

30:49 That's really cool Eureka mission for that.

30:54 So we are at 10 minutes left of our recording Holton. How are you feeling about the questions you want to ask your mom?

31:03 I think I got through most of them.

31:12 Did you have anything else you wanted to ask me? I was actually really excited about this interview. Do you have any questions?

31:27 It is definitely a very unique story. I can't say I've ever heard another smokejumping story.

31:36 People who have wanted women talk about their story.

31:40 And I really wanted my best friend to be the one to do it and because she felt.

31:48 She sent us away, but she did 30 years, you know, she made this her career, but because of the way she was treated especially in the last few years of her career. She would not talk about smokejumping at all, which is really sad and I do and I don't think all the women feel that way but you know, I don't know why no one's ever taught. I just what I wanted my kids to know busy now their mom and their daughter smokejumpers, you know, there was there was one story I didn't say about the memorizing the ropes.

32:21 So I'll talk a little bit about things that were hard, you know in like in terms of you know, I was very lucky because the spring before I went to a rookie training. I took a gig planting trees with the 4 service on an in Idaho, and I was staying at the smokejumper base dorms in the couple of the guys were there for early-season stop them. They weren't they were cool guys and then and there was also one woman smokejumper who is jumping out of a car biggest piece of advice. They gave me that he said not dated anybody the first year you're there I did it I did I so their dad and I were dating but we didn't tell anybody nobody knew about it and I didn't really know why but after I was in it for a while, I I saw one cuz they saw us this happen to a woman isn't if you go in and you're a rookie and you're already

33:21 Even have a man here like they're testing you and they want to make sure you're the one you know, they get hurt out on a fire that you're going to be there. You got to be able to pull your weight and be independent and you know, she's got your boyfriend right away. If that happens. Then as a woman you're perceived that you're being held up and propped up by the sky and you don't achieve nuts.

33:47 Respect for being independent. And so I don't know if that's why they said that or they didn't want you know that you can easily can I mean to 10 women and 400 guys you could easily, you know, make the rounds station. I'm not sure which I think it was probably both. They were they never told me why but it's not that was one thing and then, you know, the particular base that I jumped out of was a very hard one for hazing and

34:19 And being really difficult to prove yourself and not just as a woman how much more for a woman but also for the rookie guys and you know, there was some pretty terrible things that were done to us on work time and when it when it came down to the next year when there were some cuts and fire and they decided they were going to hire about the rookies but they were going to train a new class it cost a lot of money to trying to smoke number at the time that you know early 90s. I think it was quoted at $10,000 and it's much more than that now and I was irate I was like I did not put up with all that not come back this year and I wrote a letter to the congressman and I didn't say and didn't give specifics but it's kind of sad I didn't put up with all this not to be rehired and I think it's insane that you're going to train you jumpers, but you're not going to hire the ones that were already trained. Well at the end of the day we all me and my rookie Bros got her.

35:19 Cops back what I was heavily pressured to talk about what?

35:26 You know the hostility and hazing was which I never would because I always felt like you it would have done any good. Everybody would do just hated me sing with me out and it wouldn't fixed the culture inside and I've met women that have jumped me know 20 years ago 15 years later in the culture hadn't changed. So maybe this wasn't the right thing to do, but I felt like you need to change it from what then you can do the job and you prove it and there's always going to be some that aren't going to believe and that's probably their own insecurities because if me and 120 lb woman can do your job. It's not so much anymore, but there's a lot of guys that see that you're capable except you and it's great.

36:21 Why why did you go back?

36:26 What are you well, I love with you know, I'm always got to be way more than anybody should your other woman. You make it paired with one of these guys that you know.

37:06 No need for you. And it's just you and your mom is fire. That's pretty daring and it was a bit scary. And one of the things that I would do is only one person gets a map and it has to happen to be at that time that there was no GPS or anyting the person in the Bible is Alan River fire. They're going to call out the first 12 to get in the plane in the first person that was on the list is going to jump out first and see the Firebox and they get them out. Well.

37:41 It's been done before where they are.

37:53 Where I was going with fire was in relationship to travel to to road to some markers. I got left and I didn't have an app. I can still get myself out and rightly. I never had to do that because they want the guys would stop and rest a lot. I put that pack on my back and I would just keep going. I never I never stopped because you know, I didn't want to get left behind and I obviously couldn't walk as fast as they did with the very last pack out that I ever did was after a really long fire 1994 really long fire season errands. We just been going going going until I did not weigh a hundred and legally if someone had put me on the scale, I would have nothing allowed to jump out of the plane, but nobody was doing that and I remember we had

38:53 Wake up back to the jump as he goes with the guys like to do this. I would never do it because I was afraid to get on the scale and not make make weight because the last fire of the Season what's Capistrano pounds on the scale and then we'll put you on a scale my pack weigh like a hundred and eighteen lb and I weigh 214

39:29 All the guys were standing around looking, you know, they wanted to know to tell you there's a lot of respect because they don't look and do I weigh a hundred and six hundred sixty-five. I mean, you know, but it's just

39:57 I said thank you so much so much. I'm going to 40 minutes.

40:10 Okay.