PEARLINGTON, Miss.—Only two weeks after signing on to volunteer with the rural West Hancock Fire Rescue department in 2001, Deedra Burton faced her first monumental fire in the community of Pearlington. But she had no idea what to do when it came to fighting the flames.
Quickly jumping into bunker gear as soon as the call came, Burton tightened the strings of her work boots and leapt inside a red fire engine before flipping the switch to turn on the unit’s siren and lights. “Unfortunately, I grabbed the wrong (fire) truck,” Burton said, laughing. “Thankfully, others assisting on the scene had the right ones.”
Burton peered through the thick clouds of smoke and heavy flames engulfing the large structure while rounding the wooded street corner of the narrow gravel road. Pearlington is a small, scenic bluff along the lower Pearl River nestled on the edge of the Mississippi-Louisiana state line. Its rich history permeates the ancient southern live oak trees and the driftwood bobbing through murky waters within the tight-knit community of West Hancock County. It is a place that locals like Burton want to protect.
The rookie then met up with other firefighters who beat her to the scene to discuss their strategic options for battling the blaze. An interior attack, a technique commonly used to fight fire from within a burning building, looked to be impossible. Instead, crews got ready for the next best thing: a surround-and-drown tactic where firefighters extinguish the fire from outside after wetting the grounds nearby in order to halt the spread.
In those days Pearlington had no direct water source to pump large amounts of water needed to smother a boastful flare. While volunteers shuttled in supplies from nearby fire departments, teams of firefighters tamed the flames in under an hour. Unfortunately, flying embers caught in the wind left little standing.
“At the end of the day, it all burned down,” Burton said. “The house, the shed and the detached garage were all gone.”
A Legend’s Dying Wish
The dangerous and demanding nature of the job didn’t stop Deedra Burton, now 46, from following her own path while excelling in the traditionally male-dominated field of firefighting. She had a fierce love for her chosen career, which assisted her in rising through the ranks until she earned her department’s top spot—making history as the Gulf Coast’s first-known Black and female volunteer fire chief.
Just one week into her tenure as chief, which started in January 2021, Burton faced the toughest task of her entire career: lifting the spirits of her work family as they mourned the death of their friend and long-time leader, Volunteer Fire Chief Kim Jones, who died on Jan. 27 after contracting COVID-19 while hospitalized awaiting a surgical procedure. Jones’ struggle against the virus lasted for several months, leaving him isolated from family and friends for most of the time.
Serving nearly two-and-a-half decades on the force prior to his passing, his dying wish and last call in his memorable legacy of leadership was for Burton to fill his boots.
Even during times when Burton lacked confidence in herself, Jones—understanding her potential in the field—motivated and supported her. These words of encouragement helped her feed a long-time dream of helping people through disastrous times.
At age 18, Burton had found herself in a crowded traffic jam along Interstate 10 that resulted from a particularly bad accident. Rolling slowly past the wreckage, Burton dangerously rubbernecked trying to get a better look. The damage, however, was not what caught her eye; instead, she focused on the men in uniform working to assist those injured and clearing the busy roadway.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, I want to do that,’ but women just didn’t go into the fire service back then,” Burton explained. “It was very rare. I figured it was a crazy thought. I would never be allowed to do what they did. I guess it’s not so crazy now.”
At the time, though, not only did Burton believe that being a woman would hold her back from accomplishing her newfound dream, she also noticed that people of color had little representation in the field in those days.
“You didn’t see anyone on the force with darker skin, at least not in my community. I thought no one would want me to be here,” Burton said.
Then and now working in retail to pay the bills, Burton began to consider applying for a role in the field once friend and fellow retail sales associate Vicki Jones encouraged her to sign on with the station, given that building diversity stood as one of the fairly new chief’s goals.
After all, Vicki would know; she was Chief Jones’ wife.
Built For This Life
Deedra Burton’s curiosity had certainly been sparked again. She eagerly explored the idea of becoming a firefighter, this time with the support of a top-ranking official. As part of her research, she tagged along on a few of the calls to see what the fuss was all about.
“I wanted to be nosy,” Burton laughed. “I wanted to see what was going on.”
However, Burton wasn’t quite sure if the sudden, fast-paced lifestyle mixed with the multitude of required job tasks would be for her, but Kim and Vicki Jones never once doubted she had what it took to handle emergency response in her community and be part of the firefighter family.
About a year later, Burton endured the loss of her grandmother. After Burton’s grandmother’s death, Burton finally made the decision to commit to the force as she processed the loss. She figured that if she could handle her own family member dying, then she could handle anything the fire service would throw at her.
She became the first Black woman firefighter to enter the force within her department. Other women of color followed in her footsteps. Jones also brought on the first Black, male fireman to the department, Robert Sams, around the same time.
Preparing to Fill Big Shoes
The young firewoman thirsted for more knowledge in the highly competitive field, engulfing herself in countless hours of rigorous on-the-job training and continued education. Jones became Burton’s mentor, and she regularly shadowed him, constantly picking his brain. The two became virtually inseparable as she embraced every chance to learn, often working harder than men on the crew.
At times, Burton worried that she bothered Jones with asking so many questions, but he assured her that he couldn’t be happier because she apparently asked all the right ones.
“This department was special to Kim and his family,” Burton said. “He poured his heart and soul into serving this community while making a lot of differences. Everyone loved him for that. I’m humbly honored to be his successor.”
Others in the profession agreed that Burton demonstrated unrivaled dedication to her community and is more than fit for the job. Hancock County Emergency Management Director Brian “Hootie” Adam said Jones could not have left the department in better hands.
“She didn’t get the job because of her color or sex,” Adam said. “She got the job because she is the best at what she does.”
Her dedication earned her an award from Waveland Helping Hands, who honored her at the organization’s Juneteenth event earlier this year at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Waveland.
Creating Strength Across the Coast
Chief Burton’s perseverance and courage paved the way for other women, particularly women of color, to join the firefighting profession across Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
As an engineman in the Navy, Harrison County Fire and Rescue’s firefighter Lavonda Aldrich was used to working a job with few women. She was typically the only woman sailor in her department aboard the auxiliary ship she once served on.
In 2016, Aldrich moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to be closer to her biological family.
When she arrived, the single mother was homeless and living in her car with her two young boys.
“I made sure to make the kids feel like it was a vacation,” Aldrich said. “We always found something fun and usually free to do.”
Aldrich struggled to find work as she applied nearly everywhere, too hesitant to ask anyone for help. Eventually she confided in a friend who worked at a coastal military base nearby. Almost immediately, Aldrich was offered an administrative position at the Navy base.
“It was a stable job, and it paid well,” Aldrich said. “It would keep my kids in a good school, so I prepared to become the cubicle-type person.”
Just as Aldrich felt she was getting back on her feet, the Navy decided to make changes while revamping their system. Part of that plan, she said, included shutting down many administrative buildings. Aldrich had essentially been laid off. Not willing to uproot her children’s new life on the coast to make another move, she scrambled to determine what to do.
“My retirement plan was dissolving in front of my face,” Aldrich said. “So I came up with an awesome two-year plan: I was going to go fishing and hunting while living on unemployment checks for the next couple of years.”
‘It Was Just Me and the Dragon’
One morning, as Aldrich dropped her youngest child off at daycare, she ran into another parent who volunteered for a county fire department. He asked Aldrich if she would be interested in sparing some of her free time.
“Sure. Why not?’” she told him. “I’m about to have two years of free time on my hands because of my solid plan of just hunting and fishing.”
In 2018, Aldrich began her journey volunteering in the field of fire operations, with her first call a house fire where the home had completely gone up in flames.
As a fellow firefighter battled the blaze of the modest residential dwelling, the sizzling floor gave way, caving beneath his feet. Aldrich had to act quickly. She jumped into action, taking his place on the hose as the line of fire continued to dangerously grow. The room began to darken, and Aldrich discovered a special appreciation for the powerful flames as they crept toward her in what seemed like slow motion.
An overwhelming sense of adrenaline ripped through her, she explained to the Mississippi Free Press, a sparkle in her eye as she sat at the table of the empty fire station, events from that day replaying in her mind’s eye.
“It was just me and the dragon,” Aldrich said. “I tell people all the time it’s a terrifying but beautiful moment when you realize this thing is so gorgeous yet so destructive at the same time.”
Within a few months, Aldrich transitioned into a paid fire-service position when the county fire department she volunteered with decided to hire a staff of career firefighters. The job, however rewarding, would not come easy, though. Aldrich leaned on the admiration she found in other women in the field such as Burton, although she had not then met her.
“She was a huge inspiration,” Aldrich explained. “I figured if she could do it, then I could do it. It’s good when you have support. I think it helps validate that belief system within yourself that you can do what you want.”
Coming out of a cubicle, Aldrich initially suffered a crucial beating in the physical part of her state certification testing. The Candidate Physical Abilities Test, or CPAT, is a sequence of separate events timely examining a firefighter’s highest physical ability to safely perform essential job tasks.
Participants wear 50-pound vests to simulate the self-contained breathing apparatus, along with the additional weight of wearing protective clothing and other firefighting equipment. As part of the challenge, individuals must also accomplish a lengthy walk to each new obstacle allowing only 20 seconds to recover and regroup in-between. Another 25 pounds of weight is added to the person’s shoulders before the stair-climbing event.
Aldrich switched up her diet and spent countless hours working out at the gym while preparing. Still, she failed the physical aspect of her test multiple times. Refusing to give up, Aldrich elevated her workout game, increasing the many hours and effort she put in at the gym. After bombing that aspect of the test eight times, Aldrich pushed forward and came out victorious.
“I had lost my job at this point,” Aldrich said. “There was no failure. I had no other choice. There was no failing that test.”
Crediting Burton for inspiring her to persevere, Aldrich became the first Black woman career firefighter for Harrison County Fire and Rescue.
Tragedy on the First Day
Lavonda Aldrich and another rookie received a carping call on their first official day as career firefighters. The two swiftly responded to a report of a child not breathing. Upon arrival Aldrich could see paramedics working on an undernourished and neglected toddler lying breathless on the floor, even as another terrifying discovery awaited just around the corner.
Conducting a complete walk-through of the home to see if anyone else was inside, Aldrich came across two other children who had been left alone and left locked inside a back bedroom. The firefighters’ roles as first responders quickly shifted to caring and calming for the other children until Child Protective Services arrived. Meanwhile, emergency medical responders continued their desperate life-saving attempts on the motionless child. Police began investigating the situation post-haste.
Until this day, Aldrich said, this instance was the most extreme case of child neglect and abuse she has ever witnessed while on duty.
“We ended up hearing about all kinds of terrible things that had happened to those poor children,” Aldrich said. “I was able to hold myself together on that scene, but when I got back to the truck, I completely broke down.”
The critically ill child later died after being transported to an area hospital.
Back at the station, the fire chief waited on Aldrich and her partner to debrief him on the tragic events that had just unfolded at the difficult scene. He explained to both of them that the department would understand if they decided their first day on the job would also be their last day.
Aldrich took some time at home to cope, recounting countlessly dreadful memories from that horrific day while reconsidering her options. A sudden realization shifted her mindset and left her questioning something far more important, however.
‘God Doesn’t Put You Anywhere by Accident’
“What if that day would have been like any other, and I wasn’t there?” Aldrich pondered. “What if only one person was manning our fire station?”
Harrison County Fire and Rescue operates as a single fire-response department. Each firehouse situated throughout the county jurisdiction typically only has one firefighter on staff daily assigned to specific areas. There just happened to be two firefighters serving on duty at that particular station on that particular day.
“God doesn’t put you anywhere by accident,” Aldrich said about the children’s home. “Because we were both there, each child had someone to hold them.”
Reminiscent of a spiritual awakening, Aldrich says that moment affirmed her purpose and passion to serve as a first-responder in the department. “If that purpose is to take all of my life’s struggles and turn them into something that someone can hold onto while on a scene, then maybe that’s what I’m here for,” Aldrich said. “Maybe that’s God’s purpose.”
It’s also the day Aldrich witnessed the overwhelmingly strong sense of “brotherhood” for the first time in the field. She carefully took note of how everyone easily jumped in tune with one another, alerting each other when someone needed a few minutes to walk away while dealing with the harsh reality and sensitivity of the situation. This can sometimes be equally as important as the many tedious details of any scene, she says.
“You can have someone there you don’t even get along with, but the moment that call hits, that’s my brother,” Aldrich said. “I don’t care what we have argued about or fought over, at the end of the day we are both going home.”
Trapped in Flames
In May 2020, Aldrich and Harrison County Training Chief Ronnie Davis narrowly escaped a massive brush fire after seemingly smothered flames from a previous blaze reignited. The wildfire quickly spread and grew considerably larger due to dry and windy weather conditions. Several agencies across west Harrison County fought tirelessly to gain control, but the flaring forest continued to spread and create huge plumes of smoke for miles, causing major problems for motorists traveling in the area and ultimately shutting down a large section of the interstate.
As the hotspots became more and more threatening, officials began going door-to-door asking residents who lived in the affected areas along the outskirts of the two coastal cities to evacuate.
Arriving to aid other units in battling the nearly 700-acre blaze, Aldrich and Davis realized the old muddy road they had chosen to travel down had led to one of a firefighter’s biggest fears: The duo found themselves cornered with no way out when the unpredictably fast-moving fire jumped, rolling and hovering over the top of them. Remembering their extensive training, Aldrich and Davis placed a mayday call while seeking a means of safe escape.
Their fellow firefighters now found themselves tasked with a lifesaving mission to rescue two of their own from the burning acreage. Suddenly, the wild winds whipped the clouds of smoke toward another direction. Davis snatched the opportunity to find a pathway out. In the distance he noticed an opening near a clearing next to the power lines. Monolithic flames surrounded the clearance, but Davis knew it would be their best chance to make it out alive.
“I heard him yell, ‘Run!’” Aldrich recounted, “as he pointed in the direction of the clearing. So I ran as fast as I could. There is no time for second-guessing in this field.”
Aldrich suffered third-degree burns from running through the flames and was hospitalized as a result. She refused to allow the permanent scars left behind to serve as painful reminders of the incident, so she covered the burns with a tattoo of a shield with flames.
‘Girl Power’ Gives Fresh Perspective
While Lavonda Aldrich finds some calls at the station challenging, others can be fun and even crazy at times, as she continually serves her community in the northern part of West Harrison County on the Gulf Coast.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Aldrich said. “I am getting a hardcore raising out here.”
The strangest and most surprising call Aldrich instantly recollected came when a live turkey caught her off-guard while fighting a fire. It strangely supervised as Aldrich moved around the smoldering property spraying down the flames.
“I’m putting out the fire, and there’s this massive turkey following me around and standing beside me,” Aldrich laughed. “I’m like, ‘Where did this turkey come from?’”
Aldrich likes to think even the little things count when you agree to protect and serve your community. Without hesitation she once pulled over the unit to assist a turtle crossing the busy roadway. To some young child concerned for its safety, she said, that single act of compassion may have made their day.
Both Burton and Aldrich say women’s presence in the workforce can be helpful in and out of the fire-response field. They have each come to learn that women who are domestic-violence victims often feel more comfortable sharing sensitive details of abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of a loved one with another woman. They also attest that a woman firefighter can better assist little girls who tend to look for nurturing, motherly figures in trying times.
Firewomen have also been known to bring a fresh perspective to the table at the firehouse while discussing how to tackle certain situations or when debriefing after a tough call.
Women fighting for equality in the service industries, including firefighting and emergency response, dates back over 200 years ago when a Black enslaved woman in New York City—Molly Williams—was one of the earliest Black firefighters in New York City, serving at Oceanus Engine Co. 11, in Lower Manhattan. She later became famous for pulling fire water pumps through deep snow during a terrible blizzard in the early 1800s.
No doubt: Burton and Aldrich have made their mark in the long and proud history of women in firefighting, specifically for Black women. Luckily, the two Gulf Coast women found their place in the fire-response industry with the support of those who welcomed and encouraged diversity among both women and people of color in the firefighting workforce.
“We didn’t make history, we followed it,” Burton said.
Both coastal firewomen say they hope their hard work, dedication and achievements will encourage other young women with a desire to enter male-dominated fields to never give up.
“Being a woman is nothing new,” Aldrich said. “Succeeding as a woman is nothing new. Validate your own worth with the strength of your character, passion and authenticity. There will always be someone who doubts your ability to accomplish success.