This post is part of a series that is a companion to the feature article in Your National Forests Summer/Fall 2017. Get to know the women featured in the article a bit more through this series
Shelly Allen, the Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the Tahoe National Forest is one of two female Forest level FMOs in the US. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. Shelly grew up around wildland firefighting, as her father was a smokejumper in McCall, Idaho, who gave up a high school teaching career in order to fight fire for the Forest Service full-time. Shelly began working in wildland fire right out of high school, as a seasonal, during summer breaks from college.
Shelly was a high school athlete, a runner, and she likes challenging herself. She worked on a hot shot crew, an engine crew, and on a rappel crew for two seasons before deciding to apply to follow in her dad’s footsteps right out the door of a DC-3 jump plane.
“The fire aspect wasn’t really what motivated me, it was the physical challenge - I wanted to be the best of the best,” Shelly said, “to push my limits, and prove to myself that I was up to it.” Shelly completed rookie training in Grangeville, Idaho in 1997, where she jumped for a year, before transferring to the McCall Smokejumper base where she worked until 2005.
“I loved the job, loved the culture, loved keeping myself in top shape. And I got to see so many places of the country that most people will never see.”
Shelly’s first fire jump was into the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness. Her jump partner that day was a woman and they had a woman spotter kicking them out the door. “It is a moment that stuck out for me,” she recalls, as not only was she jumping her first fire, she was doing it with two sister jumpers.
Shelly’s crew was like family to her and, although she was one of only a few females, she didn’t feel unwelcomed or disrespected. She attributes this to both the women who came before her and attitude. “Deanne Shulman paved the way for women jumpers, and it wasn’t easy for her,” Shelly acknowledges, “When I met her, I was star struck, it was like meeting a rock star. She is amazing.”
Shelly moved into fire management in 2005, moving from the Payette, to the Uinta-Wasatch Cache, and then to the Tahoe, where she has been the Forest FMO for three years. Shelly says she learned many leadership skills during her jump career: “Jumpers are expected to be leaders, expected to manage situations and see the big picture.” These are skills that have helped her get into the position that she is in today – she says, “one of the best parts of my job now is with people, coming up with outside the box solutions, making changes on the ground to make sure people are safe when they are doing the job.”
Shelly says that for women in a male-dominated field, it is crucial to be authentic, to be who you are, and not act like someone you’re not. “People respond best to that,” she asserts, “and when it comes to leadership, there are certainly some truisms that can found in generalized differences between the way men and women lead, but that is okay, those differences aren’t what makes a good or bad leader.”
Shelly acknowledges that there are too few women in the wildland firefighting world, especially on the career track. She attributes this to the desire to have a family and/or maintain relationships. She comments “When you are operational, trying to have a life, to be gone as much as you have to be gone, trying to keep that balance, that is a huge challenge.”
But if you can manage this aspect, Shelly is enthusiastic about a career in Forest Service Fire, “I love the mission and working for a land management agency and it has provided me with so many opportunities to move around, to travel.” Her advice for people considering a career in wildland fire is to finish college because it will provide more opportunities even within the agency.
Shelly recommends, “Be open-minded about where your career might take you, give yourself the most options that you can, take every opportunity that is available to improve skills and marketability, train in areas other than just fire.”
Continuing to increase her knowledge about fire and grow in her profession is just as important to Shelly as pushing herself physically. In her current position, she is excited about working with wildfire in a different way - as an ecological restoration tool.
She is enthusiastic about working with a variety of stakeholders to get critical forest health projects implemented and has embraced tasks like educating the community about prescribed burning and addressing related concerns, like smoky air.
“I really want to get the public to see the big picture of fire on the landscape, to get the word out that in fire adapted ecosystem fire is necessary and important, that putting the fire out at the smallest size isn’t the only tactic, we need to allow fire to play its natural role when the conditions are favorable.”
Shelly is still embracing new challenges in her life – she is currently pregnant with her first child, though she hasn’t let that stop her from maintaining a high level of physical fitness, “I like showing people how hard I can push my body, even though I’m 31 weeks pregnant,” she laughs.
As she thinks back on her career as a firefighter, Shelly recollects one of her proudest moments: “One of my best memories as a smokejumper was after a pack-out over eight miles of rough terrain. When I got to our pick-up spot, I threw off my 110 pound pack, which was almost how much I weighed. One of the other jumpers just shook his head, ‘Shelly, if I had to put my own weight on my back for these pack-outs, I couldn’t do it.’”
Learn more about Shelley and the world about wildland firefighting in the feature article, "Drawn to Flame: Women Forged by WildFire" in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Your National Forests.