PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Florida’s forests are some of the most beautiful and beneficial natural resources. They can also be one of the most dangerous.
The Florida Forest Service estimates humans are responsible for 80 percent of wildfires that happen annually. And there’s a cost both to taxpayers and to the men and women who respond to them.
WPTV is patrolling for fire with Florida Forest Service area supervisor and firefighter David Grubich.
”We protect people’s lives. We protect people’s property, their livestock — there’s a lot that we protect,” Grubich said. ”Seven days a week. 365 days a year.”
And he has an eye for spotting those could be disasters.
”A mower strike on a rock,” he said.
He even still has the scars to prove it.
”I got five stitches and a broken nose,” Grubich said. ”I’m ex-military. This was a scratch. I been shot twice, stabbed three times, and blown up once.”
They’re battle scars as incident commander of Indian River County’s 1,200 acre Tree Frog Wildfire at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in May.
“We had 10 Florida Forest Service bulldozers out on the ground. We had a helicopter in the air dropping buckets. We had an aircraft guiding the helicopter and maintaining air space control,” he said.
All while running three radios on me and two cell phones. Meanwhile, Indian River County and Brevard County Fire and Rescue, and the department of environmental protection worked containment efforts on the ground.
”They are jacks of all trades,” said Tad Stone, Indian River County Emergency Management director. “They know how to shuttle water. They know how to fight fires. They know how to run those advance notice life support calls. They know how to run those advance life support medical calls. They know how to do a lot of things very well and I’m very proud of them.”
These first responders aren’t afraid of the daily pressure.
”Awe man — what’s not to like,” said Miguel Nevarez, Florida Forest Service mitigation specialist. “We’re here for the community. We’re here for the brotherhood.”
”It’s a cooperative agreement. It’s a cooperative process,” added Stone.
And they aren’t afraid to call out the people responsible for wildfires.
”Someone lit (the Tree Frog Wildfire),” said Grubich. “It’s not arson but it was lit by human activity in the woods.”
It’s called an incendiary fire that Chapter 590 Title XXXV of the Florida Statute says is a punishable third-degree felony. Currently, eight out of 10 fires in our state are started this way.
”If you’re not paying attention. It can get away,” Grubich said.
And the sources include heat from a vehicle’s catalytic converter or exhaust system when they touch a high brush, unattended campfires, welding or cutting wood in the woods, even light reflecting through bottles that “under the right circumstances” can be disastrous.
”Human activity could be as simple as dropping some trash in the woods can cause a fire,” Grubich said.
First responders say prevention starts with awareness and that’s where you’ll find fire danger signs. Even on the day of WPTV’s taping our region was listed as “extreme” which means a wildfire is more likely to start and also be most intense. And there’s a cost to taxpayers if we don’t.
”It’s paid forward and you reap the benefits of it after the fact,” Grubich said. “No one appreciates us until you see us a bulldozer in your backyard and you still have a home.”
And there’s an additional cost for carelessness.
“If we can find the responsible party for the fire we can actually go back and bill that person for the time and materials that we had on scene,” Stone said.
Indian River County like St. Lucie county uses a FEMA reimbursement rate. A brush truck is $42 per hour and a tanker is $38 per hour.
A brush truck requires two firefighters and a tanker requires one. All brush fires will also have at least one chief officer and one safety officer, depending on the size of the fire.
”Be careful when you’re out in the woods. Be aware of what you’re doing because if it looks like it may start a fire — it will probably start a fire,” Grubich said.
To learn more about opportunities within the Florida Forest Service, click here.