Cassie Knierim starts full-time Monday with FGF&R

by: COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE FIRE DEPARTMENT - New Forest Grove firefighter Cassie Knierim found her first firefighting job--a wildland gig in Montana--on she steps into a full-time firefighter position next Monday, Cassie Knierim will be Forest Grove Fire & Rescue’s first-ever ... physics major!

“This was not in the life plan at all,” said Knierim, whose love of physics began with an eighth-grade science project on the atom, where she discovered quarks, the uncertainty principle and Pauli’s exclusion principle. (Just Google it.)

Knierim will also be the department’s second-ever full-time female firefighter. Karen Nordstrom beat her to that distinction 16 years ago.

In a nod to our society's growing androgyny, Knierim’s physics degree sets her apart more than her gender at FGF&R, even though the male to female ratio there is 10 to 1. (It's 20 to 1 for physics majors.)

Does she feel a need to prove herself as a woman? Yes--just as 38-year-old Will Murphy needs to prove that he’s as good a firefighter as “the younger guys” — or the younger guys need to prove they can be as good as veterans like Murphy. Is Knierim's need stronger? She doesn't waste time thinking about it.

Still, it’s the steady integration of women such as Nordstrom and Knierim into traditionally male jobs (and men into traditionally female fields such as nursing) that are slowly blurring gender roles overall.

“It was kind of a shock to the system,” said Nordstrom, who was hired in 1997 by former Fire Chief Bob Davis at a time when many of her male colleagues initially had “old school” skepticism about whether a woman could do the job.

Now a lieutenant, Nordstrom didn’t feel like she’d truly proven herself until she got off probation.

A female firefighter meant more than separate living spaces and shower facilities, said Dave Nemeyer, Forest Grove Fire & Resecue’s fire marshal and public information officer.

“Having a ‘sister’ in the firehouse family really has brought something intangible to the typical testosterone-infused firehouse environment,” said Nemeyer, who takes advantage of Nordstrom’s “sisterly advice” on certain matters.

There can be call-specific benefits too, Nemeyer said. “We had a young pregnant woman once who would not let an all-male crew examine her when she called 9-1-1 for complications.”

Nordstrom was part of a wave of adventurous, physically fit women who first tasted firefighting in a wildland setting — on summer jobs during their college years, Nemeyer said. The wave started in the late '70s and was the biggest catalyst for changing men’s attitudes and drawing more women into full-time firefighting, he said.

“This level of very strenuous experience climbing mountains and fighting fires in the heat proved to everyone that a lot of women were just as capable, if not more so, than a lot of men that were already in the profession,” Nemeyer said.

Culture shock

Not every woman could hack it. Maggie’s Buns owner Maggie Pike, for example, spent a summer fighting wildfires in Idaho. During one fire, “I had to dig a hole in the ground and wait for the fire to go over the top of me and it scared the s--- out of me, so I decided I’d rather go bake for a living,” she said.

But Knierim, majoring in physics at Montana State University in Bozeman, loved wildland firefighting when she tried it in 2007, the summer after her freshman year.

“It was kind of a culture shock,” Knierim said. “I was a quiet, nerdy kid. Wildland firefighting was mostly rough, rowdy guys.” She was one of two women in a group of 20.

But the guys quickly learned her quietness didn’t mean disapproval and everybody bonded.

That experience led Knierim to volunteer for a small fire department outside Bozeman, where the job turned out to be much more physically demanding than her wildland stints, which required more long-term endurance.

“I wasn’t fit enough yet. I didn’t have the upper-body strength,” she said. “I could pull the hose, I could break the sheetrock — but maybe not as fast as I should.”

Over time, she became stronger and learned tricks to compensate, such as wrapping the hose around her arms instead of just grabbing it with her hands — the difference between Knierim and her colleagues being that instead of just thinking, “This works better!” Knierim also thought, “Increased friction! Ofby: COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE FIRE DEPARTMENT - Cassie Knierim cuts through a roof during a training drill with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue. course!”

Maryland internship

After graduating in 2010, Knierim spent her summer on an internship with the Firefighting Technology Group at a Maryland laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She helped research how to keep masks from melting and how to improve thermal imaging and firefighter-locator units.

It seemed to be a good blend of those two important parts of her life. But the tug of actual firefighting was too strong. The Oregon native began volunteering at the Cornelius Fire Department in August 2011 and interning at Forest Grove last March.

Knierim hopes she can help bridge the “communication gap” between scientists in the lab and firefighters in the field, perhaps even someday conducting experiments through her work in Forest Grove. And she likes how Chief Michael Kinkade is so interested in research-driven findings.

That's part of what set Knierim apart from the other candidates, said Nemeyer, who sat in on her job interview.

"She is unbelievably smart. When she walked out of the room, it was like what the Boston Red Sox must have felt when they watched a young Babe Ruth play ball as a teenager. She just glowed with untapped potential.”

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