Education is big part of Forest Service’s function

PALMDALE — Besides keeping us all safe, the firefighters, forest rangers and other employees of the Florida Forest Service perform a related crucial public service: They conduct different types of training. Some is for first responders or invited students only, some for agricultural/horticultural workers who need to know how fire behaves so they can safely burn whatever/wherever their job requires it, and some for John and Jane Q. Citizen themselves so they can better protect their homes from fires of both the wild and conventional variety, or learn how to safely clear their property using combustion.

The premier tool used against wildfires in Florida is the bulldozer because firefighters here use dirt as their weapon, and water only sparingly. Photo by Chris Felker.

There’s also education available to young people through the FFS that can get them started in a lifelong career of forestry, or in wildlands or regular firefighting. A career path that runs through the FFS can lead to many different places. The agency also employs pilots, dispatchers and others, and it does have some part-time workers as well, although most are full-timers.

In a recent interview inside the FFS station at the Palmdale fire tower, Senior Ranger Danny Callahan and Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Melissa Yunas took time to talk about the various types of educational activities they frequently conduct.

In speaking about his daily routine on the job, Ranger Callahan mentioned, “It’s not a daily occurrence, but it can occur, where somebody wants to burn a pile, and they’re not sure how to do it or what to do, or what the setbacks are from their house or the neighbor’s house or the woods, or what they can burn.”

The FFS staff fields various questions from the public, and that’s a common one. In such a case, he said, “we’ll send somebody out to look at what they’re burning, talk to them about it, make sure they meet everything (regulations-wise) and then tell them yes, they’re good to go, or maybe they need to move it here or there…”

There are, necessarily, restrictions on public burning, which apply to anyone doing it, and sometimes fires other than in grills are banned due to extremely dry weather. Permit requirements are in place and, said Ms. Yunas, “permitting is handled through our dispatch.”

That part of the operation locally is done from the FFS station in Okeechobee. Those who regularly burn for agricultural or other property-related purposes, such as clearing land or relocating orchards or pastures, for example, can arrange for a permit or register a prescribed burn through the FLBurnTools app. It allows FFS staff and the public to see real-time information about both prescribed burns and other fires, which, if they’re of a large enough size but not registered beforehand, might be considered wildfires and thus require emergency response.

Pile burner certification

The Division of Forestry, FFS’s parent agency, also does conduct training sessions for pile burners, and one of them is coming up Feb. 6 in Immokalee. It’s already half full; class size is limited to the first 50 people, and pre-registration is expected to be closed out by mid-January.

The $50 registration fee covers all sessions, a color booklet and other handouts, refreshments and lunch for a daylong Certified Pile Burners Course that will take place at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center. It’s conducted jointly with the UF/IFAS Cooperative Extension Service.

Anyone who routinely burns piles of debris or vegetation is encouraged to take this training, because the certification allows them to receive priority for authorization to burn during dry weather. They also can have two hours longer per day than non-certified burners and get multiple-day authorizations.

Sometimes if a prescribed fire or one that wasn’t permitted gets out of hand, it can create a smoke nuisance that ends up being reported by the public, and FFS might also be called upon by another firefighting agency, a private company or large landowner, or dispatched for mutual aid assistance. Ms. Yunas said FFS “will go out there and do a compliance check to make sure it’s within regulations of Florida statutes.”

And as a Florida Forest Service wildfire mitigation specialist, she doubles as a public information officer during wildfires but more often is doing supervisory duties or acting as a public educator giving lectures to citizens, civic or residential groups about how to keep property safe.

Mr. Callahan teaches courses through the state’s Withlacoochee Training Center to FFS trainees and others. Ms. Yunas said, “We also teach the fire departments. We try to help them out and get them to understand the importance of fighting fire in the woods, and so they need to know … the basics of wildland firefighting.”

But it’s much different in the Sunshine State than elsewhere, she says, because here the primary tool is earth, not water.

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