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Forest firefighter

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Debbie Beard is a wildlife biologist and a firefighter who does prescribed burns

By MEGAN CHICHESTER
Staff Writer

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In a field that is primarily male, Wildlife Biologist and Firefighter Debbie Beard is one of the few women in the U.S. Forest Service.
“The hardest part of my job is balancing being gone and the stress of knowing that you should be home,” she says.
“But I have to be where the fires are. I have known people who have been killed, but you have to keep it up in your mind all the time. You always remember it is dangerous and you can’t forget that.”
Beard has always believed she was cut from a different cloth.
“I was never one of those moms who picked up my kids in a dress, heels, hair done and makeup on,” she says. “I was usually late! It is non-traditional, for sure. My kids grew up knowing that, but they always support me and understand why I left to work.”
It’s a struggle to maintain a family and work in the forest service. Beard notes most women can’t keep up with the job once their family lives start.
“The majority of the younger women fall out when they decide to get married and have a family. It is difficult to recruit women, but we have a low retention. It is a difficult profession to maintain and have a family. You need a strong support system to be gone weeks at a time. It takes strong character.”
For 25 years, Beard has maintained this position even though she herself says it is difficult for women to keep.
“What keeps me in this profession is that I believe it is important. It is also my passion and important to me to be a role model for women that feel called into non-traditional roles.”

Beard’s daughter, Meagan Bieber, also works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Passing on her teachings, Bieber dispatches aircraft and fights fires in engines and helicopters.
On Friday, Nov. 3, a prescribed fire was scheduled in Wakulla County. A total of  1,115 acres were set ablaze.
Prescribed burns are common, something Beard is familiar with.
“I got into firefighting and prescribed burning as a way to manage the habitat for game animals and endangered species. I noticed the populations tended to be more abundant in areas that have been recently burned,” Beard says.
“The process of burning is just hugely beneficial to our ecosystem as a whole,” she says. “Wildlife flourishes in areas that have just been burned, the new growth draws in deer, rejuvenates resources for the animals and wildlife. Brings in bugs that wild turkeys eat, all the bird life that relies on that seed comes in. It really is the best thing you can do for the environment in this area.
“It is also great for worm grunting,” she says. “People who have permits will come out after the fire has been done. Worms are easily visible and easier to coax to the surface after the vegetation has burned.”
While many support this environmental cleansing ritual, Beard notes how the fire situation in California is different than in the Southeast. Mainly, the issues of tending to the forest and how/when untreated natural disaster rushes in.
“We get complaints sometimes whether it’s ‘I just washed my car,’ to a few hunters’ complaints of not being able to see their mark. In California, its similar complaints and more about the low public acceptance of prescribed burning. There are a lot of high dollar homes and it takes a lot of work to treat that fuel so it won’t burn down someone’s home.
“Here, we have just been burning for so long the fuel loading is low and it is easy to get around those areas.”
At least in Florida, Beard has an easier time with completing prescribed burns,
“Folks that move in learn that there will be smoke. There is a lot of public acceptance here. In actuality, we do so much burning here in the Southeast that some unprescribed fires are under reported. Air quality has a lot to do with it too. We can blow a lot of it into the water and not many people care.”
All of these together are advantages to working in Florida for Beard,
“There are many things here in Florida we have on our side for burning. Out west and in California, they just never have started as they should have. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s more of how to maneuver the topography and get the process started.”
Annually, national forest has 75 to 100,000 prescribed fires. There’s a job, known as the “burn boss,” which ensures the fire goes smoothly and that its contained to the area of the fire, and that no winds make it go off course.
The “burn boss” for Friday’s prescribed fire was Aaron Edwards. At times, the firefighters have to put out fires on the interior of the burn and adjust smoke off of the road.
In this line of work, it is a team-based effort. One this day’s team, one of the women who joined the crew helping put out fires was the front desk receptionist at the department, Nina Gainey.
Volunteers and future forest firefighters alike need to be red carded –  meaning they must pass a physical test and take some courses related to fire safety and forest training. Then the volunteers or first time firefighters  are then carefully chaperoned while out in the field.
Beard knows that anything can go wrong if distracted. But the job, when done cautiously, is rewarding.