The silence of the burned environment was eerie, as Ashley Cappel and fellow firefighters lay in the ruins of the Cameron Peak Fire to rest for the night.
Cappel, a deputy emergency manager and wildland firefighter for Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, had been sent on a 72-hour deployment for the 2020 wildfire, which ultimately spanned more than 208,000 acres and became the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
“Our fire camp was in an area that had completely burned over weeks prior,” Cappel said, explaining that the camp was a safe area to try to rest because there was nothing left.
It was there, surrounded by char, that the devastation of the fire sunk in.
“You can just hear your heartbeat, because there’s nothing else to hear,” she said. “There’s no animals left in the areas. There’s not even birds chirping. It’s just kind of this deafening quiet of — everything around is just gone.”
That experience stuck with Cappel, showing her both what happened and what she and the other firefighters were working to prevent from happening elsewhere. It also helped motivate her to take the next step in her firefighter career and become the first female Type 1 wildland firefighter in the history of Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
A Type 1 firefighter, otherwise known as a “squad boss,” helps lead a small group of firefighters, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. There is a lot of independent tasking when it comes to firefighting, Cappel said. Although firefighters are given a broad objective when addressing fires, it is often up to individual trucks and teams to develop a strategy to meet that objective.
To get the Type 1 certification, a firefighter has to complete a task book, which Cappel said is essentially a checklist of tasks, such as being able to document weather out in the field with the proper tools and becoming a driver operator of brush trucks, a type of fire truck.
“Once I went on the Cameron Peak Fire, that kind of spurred, ‘Hey, I’m already doing all these things and there’s a leadership opportunity here, and growth for me to better understand versus just kind of being told, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Cappel said about why she wanted to become a Type 1 firefighter.
From August 2020 through April 2022, Cappel filled out her task book, and this April, she earned certification from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and became the first female Type 1 wildland firefighter in Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office history.
“There’s a commitment and a dedication that is beyond typical, and sacrifices, frankly, that have to be made in order to move up,” said Nathan Fogg, the emergency manager of Arapahoe County’s Office of Emergency Management, who also oversees the Wildland Fire Team.
“Her desire to prove her dedication, demonstrate it and kind of set these standards and break trail for other folks, in what was historically a male-dominated profession, it shows a lot of drive a lot of dedication,” Fogg said.
Joining the Wildland Fire Team
Cappel, a 35-year-old mother of three who lives in Castle Rock, has worked for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office for about 10 years, long before she considered becoming a firefighter.
In her role as a deputy emergency manager for the Office of Emergency Management, her primary day-to-day job, Cappel helps the county prepare for, prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from human-caused or natural disasters. For example, when situations require it, Cappel will work in the emergency operation center.
The Office of Emergency Management also helps oversee the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Wildland Fire Team. The team has 21 firefighters from across county entities, Fogg said, and members have volunteered to join the team as an ancillary duty, meaning they have a different primary job in addition to being a wildland firefighter.
The Wildland Fire Team responds to fires in areas of unincorporated Arapahoe County, where there is not a designated fire jurisdiction, and the team also assists other local firefighting agencies. There are typically six to 10 local fires a year that the team responds to, in addition to occasional state deployments to fires like the Cameron Peak Fire and Marshall Fire, Cappel said.
Cappel first considered becoming a firefighter after the July 2018 Tom Bay Fire east of Denver near Bennett, saying, “It was actually one of our fires … And it was considered a wildland interface fire, so we were approaching homes and we had evacuations.”
It was a chaotic experience for her in the emergency operation center, she said, because she didn’t understand the terminology the firefighters communicated on the radio channels.
“It was so hard to visualize because I hadn’t been in those shoes before,” she said.
She wanted to understand the terminology firefighters used so she could better visualize these types of situations and determine the best ways to support their needs and think ahead for cascading incidents, she said. Wanting to learn in a hands-on way, she began attending some classes and training with firefighters on the Wildland Fire Team.
Cappel officially joined the team as a trainee firefighter, classified as a Type 2 firefighter, in about April 2019, she said, after completing training and the “pack test” in which she had to complete a 3-mile journey in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack.
She continued training and completing exercises, learning from experienced firefighters on the wildland team. The first fire she responded to was a fire in Deer Trail in August 2020, marking the start of her being able to complete the task book to become a Type 1 firefighter.
Given her roles as both a deputy emergency manager and firefighter, it can be a “game day decision” whether Cappel will be in the emergency operation center or on the fire line, she said.
Fogg, the county’s emergency manager, said Cappel's decision-making style shows her to be a person who listens first and an unabashed decision maker who is comfortable with altering course as new information comes.
“She’s flexible, she’s [a] solid listener and she’s decisive — all fantastic qualities that we’re looking for in emergency management and wildland firefighter,” Fogg said.
Less than 10% of firefighters are women
Firefighting has traditionally been a male-dominated field. In 2019, women made up 8% of the firefighter population, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In the Wildland Fire Team, composed of 21 firefighters, there are typically two to three women, said Fogg. Currently, there are two.
Cappel said she wonders if stereotypes about being a firefighter are part of the reason it’s a male-dominated field, saying the physical component of the job can be seen as a barrier.
Overall, Cappel said, she has a great, supportive team, adding that if she has a question or needs additional support, her teammates will jump in and won’t think of it as a weakness.
“I didn’t face too many hurdles,” she said, adding that many firefighters became like family during deployments, as they helped support and look out for one another. “It is just a little different. You stand around a briefing and you recognize that you are the only female.”
One of the challenges Cappel did initially face was getting wildland firefighter personal protective equipment that fit her properly and comfortably. It’s important to have clothes that fit, Fogg said, because otherwise, the clothes can make it harder to work and affect one’s performance.
“It didn’t exist,” Cappel said about firefighter gear fitted for women. She said she would have to order pants intended for men that would often come up to her rib cage. When she finally found a manufacturer that made women’s cut pants, it was located in Oregon and would take eight to 10 weeks for the pants to get sewn.
“It’s much better now because manufacturers are actually creating women’s sizing and women’s cuts,” she said, saying she now has properly fitted gear that is manufactured in Colorado.
Similar to how the firefighting field is male-dominated, Cappel said there also are not many women in emergency management.
“It’s not a widely diverse group,” she said. “It’s getting better with women in emergency management, but seeing that same thing on the fireline, kind of, both of them run parallel for me to want to encourage and mentor.”
To help mentor others, she recently joined a newer group called Women in the Field of Emergency Management, WTFem.org for short. It’s an organization that helps mentor women interested in fields such as emergency management, waste management and public works.
Cappel’s advice to other women and girls interested in firefighting is to talk to professionals in the field and learn more about what it’s like, whether it be during an open house session, a presentation or by directly reaching out to someone. “Dig your heels in and go for it,” she said.
Looking ahead, she wants to continue to grow her mentorship of women and girls interested in the fields of emergency management and firefighting. She also aims to become more experienced in her Type 1 firefighter role, gaining skills that can apply to both her roles as a firefighter and a deputy emergency manager.
With each step forward, it’s memories of fires like the Cameron Peak Fire that stay with her, driving her to learn more so that she can help better protect others.
“Those were, kind of, experiences that will live with me for the rest of my career, and even beyond.”