Helicopter pilot Desiree Horton had more experience fighting aerial fires than any of her colleagues from the Orange County Fire Authority when she arrived from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection from California two years ago to become the local agency’s first female pilot.
But that did not prevent OCFA from firing her before the end of her one-year probationary period and labeling her unfit for training despite more than 30 years as a pilot, 16 of whom have fought the fires. for state and federal agencies.
Horton is now suing OCFA for sex discrimination and is seeking to end what she and her lawyers call a “boy’s club mentality.” Horton said she knew there was a “real risk of her being blacklisted” from the profession she loves, but she must fight for those who follow in her footsteps.
“I cared about protecting life and land across the state. It was my dream job. I’m a resident of Orange County, ”Horton said Wednesday at a press conference explaining his decision to file a complaint. “It’s clear to me that OCFA prepared me for failure and I never had the opportunity to succeed.
“I want to get my job back. Let me fly, ”she said.
The lawsuit, which was filed last month and seeks unspecified damages from firefighters and senior pilot Jack Matiasevich, alleges that since Horton joined the Orange County agency from Cal Fire in 2019, she has is subject to “unfair scrutiny by male pilots, crew chiefs and helicopter technicians.” She was also subjected to higher standards than her male counterparts and did not have the same training opportunities, the lawsuit says.
Horton, who broke a similar glass ceiling for female pilots at Cal Fire, said that at OCFA she was undermined, disrespectful, disparaged and felt incompetent because she was a woman.
“Desiree is a trailblazer who has risked her life countless times to save Californians’ homes. … All she wants is to be treated equally, ”said Jen Rangel, one of Horton’s lawyers. “She had been told that OCFA was a boys’ club.”
When Horton started working for OCFA, she had 9,000 hours of flight experience. Rangel said unlike some of Horton’s colleagues, who learned to fight fires from the air while on the job, the veteran firefighting pilot had been doing so for over a decade. His hiring came with conditions that new male employees did not face, according to the lawsuit.
“Despite passing numerous internal flight evaluations and obtaining an instrument rating, OCFA falsely claimed it was not good enough,” said the lawyer.
“OCFA’s flight operations lack transparency, standardization and documentation in the training and evaluation of its firefighter pilots. Rangel said an assessment of the training’s third-party management found it “to be rife with abuse.”
The Orange County Fire Authority has not commented on the lawsuit.
Female pilots are rare, accounting for less than 7% of those licensed across the country. And female helicopter pilots are even rarer. Among the female firefighter pilots, Horton is one of the few.
Once nicknamed “Chopper Chick” in less enlightened times, Horton became a regular on Los Angeles television as a new chopper driver, known for filming infamous car chases and other incidents early in his career. pilot career.
She broke into firefighting as a rescue pilot for the US Forest Service, working for that agency from 2005 to 2013, when she was hired by Cal Fire, the third largest firefighting service. country fires with large air operations. It took off from San Bernardino, tackling some of the most dangerous terrain and wildfires in the country.
When she joined OCFA, Horton became one of about 20 women out of a force of over 1,200. That 2% female presence is well below the national level, the captain said. from OCFA firefighters Lauren Andrade, who supports Horton’s efforts to end discrimination.
“I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve heard of a firefighter discriminated against because of his gender or race, but that’s far from the truth,” said the veteran of 17-year-old firefighting. Andrade said the department had a “pattern of discrimination” against under-represented groups.
“Enough is enough,” Andrade said. “It’s time to pull back the ‘orange curtain’ and hold people to account.”