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'She paved the way': State's first career female firefighter dies of cancer

Jeanette Woldseth speaks with a fellow firefighter before her retirement. (Photo credit: Bellevue Fire Dept.)

BELLEVUE, Wash. - Washington state's first career female firefighter has died of complications from cancer at the age of 64, the Bellevue Fire Department announced Wednesday.

Jeanette Woldseth, a retired fire captain with the department who became a professional firefighter in 1977, died Monday afternoon.

“Captain Woldseth was truly a ground-breaker, not only in the Bellevue Fire Department, but within the larger firefighter community,” said Bellevue Interim Fire Chief Todd Dickerboom. “She paved the way for so many women who came after her. We’re all deeply saddened by this loss. Jeanette was a very talented, wonderful person.”

He said Woldseth came from a long line of firefighters in her family. Her grandfather served with the Seattle Fire Department and her father was a volunteer captain with the Bellevue Fire Department, serving for 25 years.

Before her death, Woldseth shared with friends the story of how she became a Washington state firefighter in what was then an exclusively male occupation. It seems that her father asked her younger brother one day in 1975 if he was interested in joining the volunteers. She turned to her dad and stated, “You didn’t ask me if I wanted to join the volunteers!”

A short time later she came home to find out her father had submitted her application.

Woldseth ended up serving from 1975 to 1977 as a volunteer for the department, proving herself up to the task. When the call came to test for career status she jumped right in, according to her peers.

“We had to drag a charged 100-foot section of two-and-a-half hose 100 feet,” recalls Bellevue paramedic Denny Rask, who tested alongside her. “Male or female it was a tail kicker. She went first and passed without a problem. Her ability as a Bellevue firefighter was never in question.”

Not everyone was delighted to see the gender boundaries crossed. According to retired Fire Chief Ken McAllister, it was the firefighters' wives who had the greatest objections. They were mainly concerned about berthing accommodations, he said.

“A few of the wives gave us an ultimatum - if Jeanette was assigned to the same shift and station as their husband, then their husband was not going to be allowed to come to work," McAllister recalls.

But space was made for Woldseth and on Jan. 3, 1977, she became Washington state’s first female career firefighter. She was promoted to lieutenant Jan. 1, 1981, and she continued her climb through the ranks, rising to the rank of captain on Oct. 1, 1985.

She was also very active with the firefighters' labor union, IAFF Local #1604, serving as secretary-treasurer during her tenure at the city.

Woldseth retired as a captain on July 27, 2002. Then, eight years later, she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer and underwent treatment for two years. A year after completing treatment, in 2013, the cancer came back. It was uncurable this time - stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

Nevertheless, she continued fighting the disease by raising money as part of Obliteride - a yearly biking event with all proceeds going to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She took part for four years, cycling 50 miles in her final year.

By 2017, Woldseth's symptoms had worsened and she was unable to participate in the cycling event - yet still raised nearly $13,000, bringing her grand total amount raised for cancer research to more than $51,000.

In a statement, the Bellevie Fire Department, said, "Jeanette was loved by many. Her service to the city of Bellevue and its residents was remarkable and her legacy in the fire service will last for decades."

A celebration of her life is being planned for later this spring.

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