When Terrance Scott was in high school, he knew he might one day work for the Florida Forest Service. Scott, a forest ranger in the Chipola Forestry Center in Panama City, had his career goal narrowed down as a teenager.
“I knew I wanted to help people out somehow,” says Scott, who has been with the Florida Forest Service since 1998. “My choices were military, firefighter or policeman.
I talked to a buddy who was employed by the Florida Forest Service, and he suggested I try it. I’m glad I did.”
Scott is among around 650 frontline forest rangers who serve as wildland firefighters for the Florida Forest Service. The Service also employs another 300 people who provide firefighting support, totaling about 1,150 employees.
Management is Key
A division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Forest Service has three primary responsibilities: managing wildfires, maintaining 1.2 million acres of state forests, and assisting private landowners with fire prevention and forest management.
“Wildfire management means detection, prevention, mitigation and suppression of all wildfires wherever they may occur in Florida,” Florida State Forester Jim Karels says. “That translates into about 26 million acres of fire jurisdiction in wildlands across the state.” The Florida Forest Service responds to an average of around 4,000 wildfires a year that burn about 100,000 acres, according to Karels. These are primarily ignited by lightning strikes. The number of fires can vary depending on weather conditions.
A key component to managing and preventing wildfires is through the state’s prescribed fire program. On public and private forestland, the Florida Forest Service burns or authorizes the burning of some 2.2 million acres each year.
In 2015, Florida wildland firefighters burned a record 246,000 acres of state forests.
“That makes for a very healthy forest, a healthy ecosystem,” Karels says. “It also significantly reduces the threat of wildfire.”
Helping in Other Ways
Florida Forest Service forest rangers have more duties than just preventing or fighting wildfires. Forest rangers also help manage Florida’s 37 state forests for recreation, protection of threatened and endangered species, timber production and more. In addition, forest rangers and foresters work with smaller, non-industrial landowners to help meet their forest management goals.
Forest rangers are also frequently dispatched to other states to help fight wildfires, especially to areas particularly prone to wildfires. The Florida Forest Service sent 600 wildland firefighters and wildfire support staff to western states in 2015, more than any other state did, Karels says.
“We’re proud of our forest rangers and all they do at home and abroad to protect life, property and natural resources from the threat of wildfire,” he says. “They do a fabulous job in the western deployments. They learn a lot and they get a lot out of it,so it’s a very good program.”
Respect the Fire
Scott is among those who have volunteered to go to other states to not only help fight wildfires, but also offer other types of aid in natural disasters. He says it’s all part of the job.
“You may wake up thinking it’s going to be a routine day,” he says, “and then you get a call to say you have to go to South Florida or somewhere to help fight fires.”
Scott recalls a day 16 years ago when he nearly lost his life on what was otherwise a routine fire. It was mostly under control, but a wind shift caused the flames to become more aggressive and eventually forced Scott to abandon his equipment and attempt to flee.
“I took off running through the woods and the brush, but it was so thick that I got tired fast,” he says. “I couldn’t go anywhere. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m getting ready to die.’ ”
He finally spotted what appeared to be a game trail made by wild hogs, giving him an escape route.
“That fire was my wake-up call,” Scott says. “I learned then that you can’t be afraid of the fire but you have to respect it.”
Forest rangers across the state learn from each other’s experiences battling the blazes. Scott’s experience reminds other forest rangers that escape routes need to be available at all times.
For those brave men and women serving the state of Florida as wildland firefighters, the goal is to aggressively fight fires but heed safety first so they can return home to loved ones at the end of the day.