Drip Torch is a work of fiction—any similarity to any particular person or crew is purely coincidental and unintentional. Although today the “Mad River Hotshots,” a real-life crew based in Mad River, California, comprises an important part of the national corps of interagency hotshot crews, no such crew existed in 1988, the year in which Drip Torch is set. Besides the additional hotshot crews that have formed in the years since then, many other changes have occurred in the world of hotshots. All crews and crew members must meet uniform, rigorous standards in order to earn the elite designation “hotshot.” Those standards include not only physical fitness and crew preparedness, they also address professional conduct. Some of the interactions that take place among the members of the fictional “Six Rivers Hotshot Crew” in 1988 would be prohibited at the time of this book’s writing in 2014.
However, nearly 30 years ago guidelines to define sexual harassment were only beginning to crystallize. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did in fact cover sexual harassment. A few years later Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, placing additional protections and sanctions regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and also in educational settings. During subsequent years standardized definitions of sexual harassment became more and more institutionalized, so that today in government agencies and public schools all employees receive mandatory training.
The Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations guide, issued in 2001 and updated in 2007, exemplifies this focus upon eliminating harassment by clearly addressing it very early in the manual:
“Hazing, harassment of any kind, verbal abuse or physical abuse by any employee toward any other person will not be tolerated. Professional behavior will be exhibited at all times.” (p. 5) (For more on the extensive standards that all hotshot crews must meet, see: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/hotshots/ihc_stds.pdf)
But in 1988, the year of the Yellowstone fires and when Drip Torch’s two main characters, Jeremiah and Eileen, find themselves impacted by the sexual talk and jokes, both the identification and the reaction to sexual harassment varied widely. While crew superintendents generally communicated clear expectations about respectful talk and behavior, struggles still took place as young men and women negotiated appropriate boundaries. By 1988 for about 10 years a small handful of women had joined various hotshot crews, but many hotshot crews remained all-male, as is the case today, despite attempts to recruit women. Sexual repartee still finds its way into the speech of an all-male, macho hotshot crew. Young men still chase women, and young women still chase men–always have, always will. A single, ambiguous adjective that the federal guidelines attach to sexual speech is “unwanted.” Hence, even today, human beings continue to find themselves negotiating what is and isn’t acceptable At what point does joking cross the line from goofy jabber to harassment? When are words merely words, and when do they shape behavior and consequences?