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No boys allowed: Female teenagers learn firefighting, life skills in special ‘Camp Blaze’

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BELLEVUE, Wash.-- The giant metal jaws bite into the steel of the car frame. The hydraulics whir loudly and the jaws snap shut as teenagers cheer loudly as they pull off the car top. They're tearing open these cars like tin cans under the watchful eyes of female firefighters from Oregon, California, Alaska, Iowa and Washington.

But what these teen girls aged 16-19 are really doing is opening up their futures.

"I’m actually a pretty shy person," says 19-year-old Emerald Eldridge. "And I really came out of my shell this week."

Eldridge came all the way from Sarasota, Florida, for this one-of-a-kind experience -- it's called "Camp Blaze."

Twenty-four young women were selected for this seven-day camp that teaches drills just like real firefighters. From rappelling off a four-story tower to getting to the very top of a ladder truck, they're reaching new heights both physically and mentally.

"It’s been so busy and crazy," says Caitlyn Mertenberger. "Every day feels like three days because we do so much. It’s nonstop, but it’s a great experience," says the recent high school graduate from Wapato, Washington, outside of Yakima.  "It’s a great experience and it gets you out there. It gives you confidence and shows you can be whatever you want."

firefighting1Only about 10%  of Seattle's firefighters are women. While that seems low, it's actually three times more than the 3% of women that fight fires in Los Angeles.

"The cool thing about women becoming firefighters is with any job, the more ... that do it, the more normal it seems," says Amina Salleh, who was in this very program back in 2003. She says back then she was lost and didn't really have direction in her life.

Now she is a Seattle firefighter.

"I feel like it’s a better time than ever to be a woman in choosing a career."

And for the once-shy Eldridge, she agrees the skills here are things she'll take with her no matter what career path she chooses.

"Not only on the outside do I look confident, like shoulders, back," she says. "But on the inside, I feel more confident. It really has an uplifting powerful attitude to it."

Camp Blaze is free for these 24 young women, even though this annual program survives only on donations -- donations of cash, as well as the time of the firefighting mentors of both women and men that volunteer their time to organize and teach these  young women.

And while not all these two-dozen teenagers will go onto careers in fighting fires, some will stay in contact with their mentors and peers they connect with here for years to come.