Local News

Fighting fires is a family business for DeBree

—Family history bonds us together in many ways, often forming the basis for our eating habits, how we interact with others and our choice of occupation.

Joe DeBree works with the Florida Forestry Service as an area supervisor for Highlands County.

His grandfather, father and brother have all been active with fire departments and DeBree also thought it would be an interesting career choice.

He loves the job and hasn’t been disappointed: “This job - it’s something different everyday; you’re outdoors and you never know what you’re going to be doing from day to day.”

DeBree began volunteering while he was still in high school, shortly after his family moved here from New York.

His father and brother worked with the DeSoto City Volunteer Fire Department and DeBree remembered: “I just really enjoyed going to the firehouse, hanging out. When I was 18 and old enough to officially join a crew, I took my standards as a structural firefighter and hired on with Polk County Rescue.”

As a supervisor, DeBree holds an added level of responsibility.

“My day may start around 8 a.m. and end around 5 p.m.,” he said, “but it can also end around midnight…I always try to make sure I’m the last person to go home, that all my firefighters are back home safe before I leave.”

DeBree isn’t at his desk very much though, often working outside on projects.

“You get to see all kinds of different things, meet a lot of different people. I’m outdoors a lot, in the field,” he said.

When he isn’t working on fires, DeBree works with other firefighters on a variety of educational and prevention programs, techniques for fighting fires, natural disaster training, and cross-training structural firefighters to learn the wildland side.

There are two distinct firefighter certifications, wildland (forests, vacant land, etc) and structural (buildings and more urban areas).

“As wildland firefighters, we can spend anywhere from eight to 16 hours, walking several miles a day if we have to do burn-outs. A burn-out uses natural breaks like roadways or streams, cattle trails. By doing this, we don’t have to tear up a lot of land, but sometimes we have to move further back from the fire than we’d like to. There are fires that have burnt as much as 50,000 acres before it was suppressed.”

DeBree continued describing the wildland firefighting process, saying: “If we’re working an active fire that isn’t controlled, and we’re still in the process of suppressing it, we can be out there until 9 p.m. or even 2 a.m. We work the fires in full gear, but the pants and shirts are a lot lighter than the structural firefighter gear is – we’re in it a lot longer and the fire generally isn’t as close.

Certified by the Florida State Fire College in 1998, DeBree lives in Sebring with his wife and high school sweetheart, Jennifer, and their two children, a son, 9, and daughter, 12.

Their children are very active in sports, and DeBree said, “They’re both into football and baseball, and my daughter also enjoys competitive cheerleading and softball.”

Always a firefighter, DeBree focuses on emphasizing the preventative measures that individuals can observe to reduce the risk of an uncontrolled fire.

“We really encourage people to keep a 30-foot buffer around their home,” he said. “The gutters should be cleaned out, roofs kept free of debris, and things away from the house itself. Vacant lots close to your home can be a hazard, especially if there are yard refuse piles. We see that a lot, and if anything was to happen, that stuff will burn hot and for a long time. It’s dry and compacted, will give off a lot of radiant heat.”

DeBree encourages residents to take advantage of yard waste recycling.

“All residents will be picked up if you just put it out at the curb, in cans or bags, check for rules in your area. Homeowners can burn, but setbacks are involved and its usually just easier to put your yard waste out front and it’ll be hauled away”.

DeBree also mentioned a common misconception that green foliage doesn’t burn. “We can have wildfires all year long if it’s not raining,” he said. “Palmettos are our biggest nightmare; they burn hot and can be really flammable, they release their oils if they heat up.”

DeBree encourages homeowners to visit the Florida Forest Service website at: www.freshfromflorida.com, searching for the publication “When Nature is Your Neighbor” or call the office at 863-655-6407 for information on selecting some of the less flammable vegetation.

“If you’re not too sure about what to do, give us a call. We’re here for a reason. We’ve got so much information to share, and often hear the response ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that’ from surprised residents,’” he added.