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Remembering Mary Barr, the first woman to fly for the U.S. Forest Service


It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And this morning, we hear of a woman who fought wildfires. Mary Barr was the first woman to fly for the U.S. Forest Service, guiding tanker planes on a safe path through the flames. She flew a tiny airplane, a kind of guide. Her daughters, Molly and Nevada Barr, recently came to StoryCorps to recall growing up with their mom in the 1960s in California.

MOLLY BARR: We rarely saw our mother during fire season because she would get up before dawn, and she would be flying all day.

NEVADA BARR: She would fly down as close into the forest fires as she could get. And then these big old biplane bombers from World War II would follow down on her tail and dump the borate slosh on the fires. I mean, it's just scary as hell. But Mama just thought it was great. She kind of taught us to be our own people because she had a determination to do what she needed and wished to do that was pretty impressive.

M BARR: You know, actually, I have a picture of her, not a picture in my hand, but in my head.

N BARR: Do it. Tell it.

M BARR: She's got a leather engraved belt.

N BARR: Says Mary across the back.

M BARR: And she always wore one of those big, Western, silver belt buckles. I remember going into the store. We were going to buy Mom a birthday present. The lady who was helping us said, well, here's some nice dresses, you know? What does your mom like? And we said, well, our mother doesn't wear dresses.

N BARR: And my girlfriend said, that's Mrs. Barr. And the storekeeper went, oh, OK. The Levi's are right over here.

M BARR: (Laughter).

N BARR: And she didn't much care what other people thought - or if she did, she hid it really well. When Mama decided to go full-time with the Forest Service, she knew for a fact that as a female pilot, she had to be twice as good, twice as calm in the face of upsets, to get anywhere. But because she had so many flight hours on her Forest Service application, it looked like a lie. So she reduced the number of hours she had in the air. Mama was a daredevil and loved the red lights and sirens. But...

M BARR: She was painfully shy.

N BARR: Yes.

M BARR: When she was inducted into the Hall of Fame, we had this big dinner. And they took photos. And as we were driving home, she says, that was really special. She says, I wish I'd enjoyed it more.


M BARR: How do you think she'll be remembered?

N BARR: You know, you don't know who's watching you. And I think Mama's legacy is just going to leak out in the fact that she was courageous, determined over and over and over again. She just kept dropping drips of courage and determination. And we were filled with them, and I think a lot of people around her were.

M BARR: Any time a woman goes out and does what she wants to and succeeds, it makes it easier.

N BARR: Yeah. She was just living her life the way she wanted.


INSKEEP: Nevada and Molly Barr recalling their mother, Mary Barr, for StoryCorps. Mary was inducted into the Women's Aviation Hall of Fame. She died in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "VITTORO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Max Jungreis