Women have been firefighters for almost 200 years. However, the positions offered were often volunteer and only in rural and private fire departments. The first woman firefighter on record was a Black woman named Molly Williams. She became a member of the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1815. Eleven percent of volunteer firefighters are women, and less than five percent of career firefighters are female. Washington’s percentage is slightly higher at nine percent.
Onalaska’s Sierra Griffith
Onalaska graduate Sierra Griffith is the first career firewoman and the first career minority hired by the Montesano Fire Department. Griffith grew up on a 16-acre farm in Cinebar with her three sisters and brother. “My parents instilled in us a very strong work ethic,” she says. “Living on a beef farm, everyone in the family had chores.”
Carrying that hard work ethic into high school, Griffith graduated as a teen mom with honors in 2006. “It wasn’t easy. I worked really hard,” she shares. “There was so much I had to overcome. I built a lot of character and did an incredible amount of growth in those years.” Now a mother of two, her daughter Alannah is 17, and her son Brayden is 12.
After high school, Griffith planned to attend Centralia Community College for nursing. She fell in love with the medical field while working as a caregiver and at Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute as an ophthalmic tech.
A Motivating Move to Montesano
After relocating to Montesano, she needed a way to get out of the house and get to know the community. Volunteering at the local fire department seemed the perfect way to achieve that. Thirsty for knowledge and always seeking a way to improve herself, Griffith found that the fire department encourages and pays volunteers for training and certifications. So, she jumped at every opportunity to learn.
Juggling motherhood and volunteer firefighting for five years, Griffith found her past employment in the medical field beneficial, but she wanted to continue to improve and not be stagnant. With her children cheering her on, she decided to test for a paid position. Testing first out of nine candidates, including men and women, Griffith never intended to be the “first” of anything. She just wanted to become better and keep moving forward. All her hard work came to fruition when she, along with Lucas Salstrom, was offered a paid position in the fire department. Her first day as Montesano’s first woman and first minority firefighter was March 6.
“Whenever a woman joins a male-dominated field, you must prove yourself,” Griffith says. “To prove to everyone that women are not weak.” Her mentor, Captain Rick Watkinson, inspired and nurtured her love for firefighting. “The entire department has been encouraging and supportive,” she shares.
One of the most impactful cases for Griffith was a young man who suffered a heart attack. As one of the first responders, she and her co-workers saved his life. The young man is now a husband and a father, and Griffith sees him occasionally in town and will forever be grateful to have been a part of his story.
With plans to follow in the footsteps of Larissa Rohr, Griffith is determined to reach her goals. Rohr became the first female fire captain in Hoquiam and inspired Griffith. “It may be a while before that happens, but I will get there,” she says.
Sierra Griffith is not only an inspiration in her own right but also humble and kind, has the heart to help people and carries a tremendous work ethic. She proves you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself and are dedicated. Her advice to anyone looking to reach their dreams is to work hard, keep moving forward, improve yourself and never stop learning.
Become a First Responder Like Sierra Griffith
For Onalaska students interested in being an EMT, Onalaska High School offers a training program called the FAST (First Aid and Safety Training) Team. This is a fantastic opportunity for high school students to serve the community and learn how to be first responders.
If you want to volunteer or make a firefighting career, there are endless ways to achieve that. There is a massive need for people who want to serve the community. You must be 18 years of age, have a driver’s license and a diploma/GED.
Contact your local fire department and start volunteering!
Adna Fire Department
Centralia Fire Department
Chehalis Fire Department
Mossyrock Fire Department
Napavine Fire Department
Onalaska Fire Department
Pe Ell Fire Department
Toledo Fire Department
Winlock Fire Department
Salkum Fire Department
If you are interested in volunteering at the Montesano Fire Department, there is a high probability Griffith will be your teacher. She loves educating and often helps with the cadet class.
Here’s to strong women like Onalaska’s Sierra Griffith — may we know them, may we be them, and may we raise them.