She Was His Crew Boss — And His Mom — On The Fire Line

Sep 13, 2019

Connie Mehmel and Ian Bennett have a mother-son bond forged by fire.

Connie, 68, retired from the Forest Service last week, marking the end of her 42-year career. Ian, 42, is a lieutenant with the Seattle Fire Department.

Connie became a firefighter when she was a young mother in the 1970s. At the time, the Forest Service was working to recruit more women to join its ranks.

Connie Mehmel in Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in 2012.
Photo courtesy of Connie Mehmel

At the outset of Ian's career, the pair hiked into Oregon's Elkhorn Mountains and fought his first fire side by side. Ian was 19 and, like his mom, an employee with the Forest Service. It was the only fire they'd fight together, and Connie was his crew boss.

"You'd been telling me what to do my whole life," Ian told Connie during a 2009 StoryCorps interview. "So if you were my crew boss, it wasn't any different."

"I've often seen fathers and sons together on the fire line, but to my knowledge we were the first mother and son," Connie said.

Connie remembered asking Ian back then not to call her "Mom" on the job. "I told you when we left not to call me Mom because if you call me Mom, then everybody's going to start calling me Mom," she joked.

She said other mothers have asked her whether she has feared for Ian's safety, adding that while she would be devastated if anything happened to him, she has confidence in him.

"I've always valued a certain amount of excitement in life. But excitement often means danger," Connie said.

"There are things you see, when the fire is hot, that you'll never see at any other time," she added. "It's always been a very emotional thing for me, watching that power. And I'm glad you found a way to make it your life's work."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In StoryCorps today, Connie Mehmel has been fighting wildfires in Washington state since the late 1970s. Her son Ian followed in her footsteps. The two sat down at StoryCorps to talk about working side by side on the fire line.

CONNIE MEHMEL: I've often seen fathers and sons together on the fire line, but to my knowledge, we were the first mother and son. And I was, at one time, your fire crew boss.

IAN BENNETT: You'd been telling me what to do my whole life. So if you were my crew boss, it wasn't any different.

MEHMEL: And I believe I took you on your first fire.

BENNETT: Yup.

MEHMEL: But I told you when we left not to call me Mom. Because if you call me Mom, then everybody's going to start calling me Mom.

(LAUGHTER)

MEHMEL: We had a couple of days when we were on Sloan Ridge where we had to walk for two hours before we got to the fire.

BENNETT: Yeah, I remember those - wandering around in the woods and all. It was pretty.

MEHMEL: But it was dangerous, too. You were 19 years old, and it was a very active fire - thousands of acres. We one night had to evacuate fire camp. There was stuff falling. The footing was uncertain. Other mothers have asked me if it didn't frighten me that you were a firefighter. I would be devastated if anything happened to you, but I have a lot of confidence in you. And I've always valued a certain amount of excitement in life. But excitement often means danger.

BENNETT: Yeah.

MEHMEL: I once got to see a tree that the wind from the fire twisted up off the stump, lifted it up in the air and threw it back down again. There are things you see when the fire is hot that you'll never see at any other time. It's always been a very emotional thing for me, watching that power. And I'm glad you found a way to make it your life's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT STEVENS' "FOREIGN GHOSTS")

GREENE: Ian Bennett and his mom, Connie Mehmel. Connie retired from the Forest Service last week after 42 years. Ian is a lieutenant for the Seattle Fire Department. Their interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.