By Haley Talbot, Julie Tsirkin and Alicia Victoria Lozano, NBC News.
Capt. Karen Bureker didn’t know whether she wanted to have children when she first became a firefighter paramedic nearly 20 years ago.
But after getting married, Bureker and her husband decided to start a family. It was during her first pregnancy, after six years on the job, that Bureker realized just how difficult the transition from firefighter to mother would be while rising through the ranks of her male-dominated profession.
“It’s really a great job to be a mom, but it’s a really hard job,” she said. “My kids, as they get older, are starting to understand some of the risks that we take. But they love having their mom be a firefighter.”
Bureker, 44, is part of a rare sorority. Earlier this month, she became the first female fire captain at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue near Portland, where she started her career some 19 years ago. Back then, just six women worked as firefighters in the department, she said.
“We were definitely new to the fire scene,” she added. “The world has changed a lot since then, and our jobs have changed a lot. We’ve had a lot of men with a lot of interest in pushes that have helped move us into a more inclusive and diverse fire service.”
Despite the push for more diversity in hiring, less than 5 percent of career firefighters across the country are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Like their male counterparts, these women face increasingly dire conditions as drought, climate change and heat waves contribute to longer, hotter and deadlier fire seasons.
These women also face added mental stress from gender discrimination, plus an increased risk of miscarriage and other reproductive problems from repeated exposure to smoke and other toxins.
“When you think of a firefighter, you think of a man,” said Jenna Gray, who recently attended a fire camp for young women interested in learning more about the profession. “I think it’s really important for young girls to see that they, too, can do these jobs that only men over the last who knows how many years have been doing. It just gives you a sense of ‘I can do anything.'”
Yet a new generation of female firefighters is confronted with a system that was never built to include them. Few departments offer uniforms tailored specifically to women, forcing them to wear protective gear that fits incorrectly and exposes them to environmental hazards.
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