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Fire service forest ranger paved roads for women

—“My mom’s a firefighter.”

For Mya and Riker Ellis, they can proudly say that and more -- not only is mom a firefighter, so is dad, Carl Ellis.

In a career field predominately held by men, Mara Manlove-Ellis holds the distinction of being the only female Florida Fire Service forest ranger within the Okeechobee district, which encompasses six counties, including Highlands.

She has been with the fire service for 12 years and absolutely loves her job.

“I love it. I’ve been in fire-fighting for over 20 years now and this isn’t a clean job – we get dirty and sweaty, but I love what we do, especially when we’re able to help people,” she said.

Her normal routine begins at the station, checking out the equipment and performing maintenance to make sure everything is clean and ready to respond in case of a fire

“All of our equipment has to be fire-ready at all times,” Manlove-Ellis said.

Once the equipment is checked, the crew will either head out to work a wildfire or to check on hotspots where they have managed to contain the fire.

Manlove-Ellis typically operates the dozer plow and is responsible for establishing a brush line around the fire to keep it contained.

Over the years, she has seen many wildfires and is amazed at how quickly they can destroy an area.

“A lot of fires are actually caused by people and can be easily prevented,” she said. “Campfires need to be fully extinguished, hot coals from a cookout must be thoroughly turned and cooled. The winds can change quickly and spread sparks that start wildfires and cause a great deal of damage.”

Manlove-Ellis has witnessed the extensive damage wildfires can do.

Growing up in southern California, she was a youth volunteer with the California Department of Forestry for a few years, working both wildfires and structure fires. After graduating from Corona High School, there were a few odd jobs but nothing really stuck.

“I didn’t really want to go to college then. I decided to join the United States Navy, figuring that I could make something of my life, earn some money for college and maybe some other benefits,” she said.

Manlove-Ellis was on the first crew of enlisted women allowed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

“I’d never been on a ship, and that was tough enough, but to be among the first enlisted females to ever work on the ship added another challenge,” she remembered.

Serving three years at sea, Manlove-Ellis was a firefighter and part of a team that was responsible for the preventative maintenance on shipboard systems for fire and emergency response.

She was on call in the event of fire while at sea, but while in port, her section was only required to maintain a watch once the ship reached port.

“We all took turns on watch duty while in port, so everyone would have time to get into the port while we were there. I made a lot of good friends and am still in contact with some of them,” she said.

She completed a Western Pacific tour while stationed on the USS Nimitz. Some of the major ports included Singapore, Thailand, Jubali and Hawaii. She often spent a few weeks at each stop.

During this deployment, the USS Nimitz also conducted patrols off the coast of Taiwan, observed missile tests conducted by the Chinese in that area and participated in joint training exercises with the Pakistan military.

The USS Nimitz cruised the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, the South China Sea and was the first American warship to pass through the Taiwan Strait since 1976.

Her tour of duty with the Navy completed, Manlove-Ellis began working as a federal firefighter with the Department of Defense at the Naval Shipyard in Puget Sound, Wash.

She was the first female hired in the 75-year history of the shipyard and was there for three years.

While at the shipyard, she met Carl Ellis.

They eventually married and soon moved to Highlands County. Her husband is a retired veteran from the United States Air Force and was stationed at the Avon Park Bombing Range early in his career.

Manlove-Ellis initially volunteered with the Florida Fire Service and applied when a position that she was qualified for became available.

The Ellises live in Sebring and are raising three children: Cole, 17, Mya, 9, and Riker, 7. Cole will be a senior this year and is considering joining the military after graduation, while Riker enjoys baseball and Mya recently started playing soccer. Family life with both parents working is challenging, but Manlove-Ellis said, “We’ve been balancing dual careers for so long, we don’t even think about it -- we’re just in a rhythm that works.”

The family faced an additional challenge when Mya was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor, also known as a cranial frangionoma.

Manlove-Ellis said: “The tumor had stopped her growth. More common in older adults, the surgical process is fairly simple because they can go through the nasal passage to remove the tumor.”

“In Mya’s case, they had to cut from ear –to–ear because she was so young and tiny, also cutting out and then replacing part of her forehead. She was in the hospital for eight days, the worst days of our lives,” she said.

Manlove-Ellis appreciates how supportive everyone around them was, including Mya’s school, saying “The school really worked with me to keep her studies current and her teacher actually came to our home on occasion for lessons and conferences.”

In her free time, Manlove-Ellis enjoys playing softball with a league and has played with team “No Drama Mamas” for about four years now.

With 11 years of experience, she is a versatile and valued team member, and knows many players within the league.

Erin McCarta, a teammate, said: “I’ve played ball with her for a long time, she’s a great player wherever you need her. She’s very helpful and will give you the shirt off her back.”

In sports, things aren’t always easy and McCarta appreciates Manlove-Ellis’ insight on many occasions, saying, “She doesn’t mince any words and tells you like it is. She often sees the humorous side and brings out the funny parts of things, sometimes that’s just what we need.” McCarta is a biologist on contract with the Air Force at the Avon Park Bombing Range.

Manlove-Ellis hopes to resume working on her associate’s degree, saying, “I enjoy college now, but it’s a lot harder when you get older, are working and have a family.”

Talking about her career, Manlove-Ellis absolutely loves the challenge that each new day can bring.

She particularly enjoys the educational component of being a forest ranger and the opportunities to conduct fire prevention programs, saying, “We do a lot of, talking to the kids, it’s a lot of fun. The Florida Fire Service recently took an old helicopter out to Highlands Hammock and let kids go up sit in it. It was a helicopter that was used to drop water on fires. I also had my dozer out there, they could climb up and sit inside. It was really neat for them to see what we see and how we do it.”

For those considering a career in firefighting, the physical demands include being able to walk two miles in 30 minutes while carrying 25 pounds.

Newly certified firefighter Joe Harger is frequently on Manlove-Ellis’ crew and said, “I like coming to work every day and working with Mara. I enjoy working outside and this is the best job I’ve ever had. This is like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

Manlove-Ellis echoes that sentiment, saying, “Being a ranger can be really rewarding. We can help people and really make a difference when we do our job.”