The Florida Forest Service satellite station in Belle Glade is manned by two full-time wildland fire fighters, Clayton Mortimer and Ronnie Ouimette. Ranger Mortimer grew up in Loxahatchee on a forestry station, but he said although he did want to be a fire fighter, it was never his plan to become a forest ranger. His dad was a ranger for 35 years, he said and just retired a couple years ago. After Ranger Mortimer graduated from high school, he went into nursing, but soon realized he didn’t enjoy the medical side of things after all and decided to get into fire fighting. He went with the Forest Service because they make it easy, he said. They hire you and put you through school. When you have to work full time, it’s not easy to drop everything, put your life on hold for a year or two and go to school. In Palm Beach County, they require EMT and paramedic training too, and he already knew he didn’t like the medical stuff, he said.
With the Forest Service, six months after he was hired, he was in fire school. The first six months were spent working on a task book. You complete all your pre-reqs, he explained. Just like you would if you were in college. They give you a bunch of books to read. He had to go through structure training. You go through classes, learn basic first aid and CPR, stuff like that, he said. You also learn on the job training — things like loading and unloading the tractors. He had to get a class B CDL license. You are not sent to fire school until you accomplish all those tasks. When you are finished, he explained, you have the same qualifications as the county except for the medical.
While you are training, you are on the payroll and assigned to a station. You can even go to fires once you have completed certain pre-reqs, he said. He was 25 years old when he became a ranger. At first, his dad discouraged him. He thought it would be better for him to complete the medical portion and sign on with the county, “but now he is proud that I stuck with it,” Ranger Mortimer said. Having a father who was a ranger for 35 years was a big help when he was going through the training.
Ranger Ouimette is a native of northern N.Y. He said he came from a very small town about 30 minutes south of Montreal, way up in the mountains of New York. He moved to Florida for the warmer weather, he said. In N.Y., he was a structural fire fighter. All the fire fighters there were volunteers because it was a very small town though, he said. He had always wanted to be a fire fighter, but when he came to Florida, he decided against applying. He really didn’t care for the medical side of things, and with structure, 99 percent of the calls are EMT, so he worked in security for three years until he saw an ad for a wildland fire fighter one day. He had never heard of such a thing before. “Up north, rangers are law enforcement only,” he said. “They don’t fight fires.” He immediately applied for the job. “Here,” he said, “it’s all about the fires.”
“Medical is hard,” said Ranger Mortimer. “It’s taxing on you. Showing up and finding a whole family up under a tractor trailer.”
Their area is different than some of the other areas, they explained, because they have a lot of sugar cane. Every morning when they go in, they have to authorize all the smoke sensitive sugar cane work. They have to monitor it to see what the smoke is doing. Is it impacting school, hospitals or major roadways? They might have 40 or 50 of those each day. They use a smoke plotting tool to tell them where the smoke is going to go based on wind direction and speed. They have to make sure the smoke actually does what it was predicted to do. If not, they have to shut down the next burn. Sometimes they have to shut down the road. Sometimes they have to get law enforcement involved. “Often the solution is to shut down the next burn because they will burn one field and then the one adjacent to it, but the sugar cane guys don’t want smoke in the roadways any more than we do, they said. They are not trying to cause problems. They are very well trained. They take classes from us and they know how to plan when and where to burn based on wind conditions,” said Ranger Ouimette. Some 90 percent of the time they are compliant, the men explained. The trouble comes in when they need to get a field burned and something happens day after day to prevent it. It rains one day and is too windy the next. Then they might be tempted to just go ahead and burn in less than ideal conditions.
Most of the fires they deal with are sawgrass fires. They have different equipment than Okeechobee has. Okeechobee has a tractor plow, but they have something almost like a snow machine. Often, sawgrass just needs to go ahead and burn, they said. As long as it’s not affecting a roadway, they usually just let it burn because it’s nature. The scale of fires is a lot bigger over there too, they said. They have areas with tens of thousands of acres of sawgrass. Last year they had a 7,000 acre fire and Broward had a 5,000 acre fire. “We’ve even had them up to 69,000 acres,” said Public Information Officer Scott Peterich. “We just let it burn.” If they need to stop it for some reason, they will start a back fire and once the two fires meet, they go out.
They have airboats and marsh masters they can use if needed. They even have a rolligon with five-foot-wide tires that can float across canals, but 99 percent of the time they would just let it burn, they said. Smoke is really their biggest threat, explained PIO Peterich. Many people die due to smoke. In 2011, a deputy was killed on the side of the highway. That’s when it affects the entire emergency management community, he said. People just don’t realize how dangerous smoke can be, he said. I’ll never forget once during a fire, the road was shut down. I was looking down to be sure I was still on the road, and I saw a flash of blue as a highway patrol went by barely missing me. He couldn’t see me, and I couldn’t see him. We both knew the road was shut down. We could have both been killed. Once you go into the smoke, you could be in there for half a mile. On I-75 a few years ago during the Paynes Prairie fire, 14 people died. That was grass too, he said. “People just don’t realize it’s not safe to drive through smoke.”