Local News

More than just fighting fires

This past October, Lake Placid resident Tim Elder was named the new district manager of the Okeechobee district of the Florida Forest Service.

A 28-year veteran of the agency, Elder now oversees operations in Highlands, Glades, Indian River, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.

As the District 16 manager, Elder directs fire, emergency and forestry management from his office at the Okeechobee District Field Unit.

"I never have liked the term manager. I prefer to say I lead those that work with me," said Elder, who has a deep respect and concern for the 42 employees, forest rangers, certified wildland firefighters and support personnel under his supervision.

His office is the lead agency for wildfire suppression and prescribed burns in Florida.

"In this part of the state our primary focus is fire management. We have the biggest prescribed burn program in the country," Elder said. "We are looked at by other states and federal agencies across the country so they can better improve what they are doing. We are very proud of that."

As an Incident Command System instructor and part of the ICS management team, Elder has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief groups, coordinating response teams for several major disasters, including the Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 and Hurricane Katrina.

"I spent 21 days in New Orleans. Instead of wildfires, we were putting out structure fires. We had no hydrants, no water supply. We had to use helicopters to attack the fires from the air," he said of the five Black Hawks equipped with 500- to 1,000-gallon buckets he commanded.

Elder has been assigned all over the country to national teams as an air operations branch director, called into service by state emergency management systems or the federal government.

"You don't go into an occupation like this if you think it is about you. It's about helping other people," he emphasized.

Elder's interest in forestry developed as he was growing up in a sparsely populated area of Oklahoma.

"I grew up helping my dad log," explained Elder of the work that was done by hand, using only a draft mule and skid to pull the felled trees. "Our family had a small saw mill. We cut rough-cut lumber for farmers and ranchers."

It was while he was getting his Bachelor of Science degree in forest management/forest resources management at Oklahoma State University that this soft-spoken, outdoorsman met his wife, Becky.

The couple moved to Lake Placid in 1985 when Elder was hired as a forest ranger/firefighter at the Sebring Station.

"We are really happy down here," said Elder of his wife, an X-ray technician at Florida Hospital Lake Placid, their two daughters and granddaughter.

Though Elder works up to 60 hours a week between office and travel-time, he is also an active member of the Highlands Pedalers Bicycle Club, riding two or three times weekly.

"I run, swim and lift weights in between," said the 52-year-old of the fitness training that keeps him in shape for competitions. "My first triathlon was in 2010; I've been in a couple dozen since."

An annual fundraising event that holds great significance to him is Brother hoodRide.com.

In the past two years he has participated and become a sponsor of the long-distance bicycle rides that raise funds for firefighters, policemen and EMTs killed in the line of duty.

The 2012 ride covered over 750 miles, raising $33,000 for 11 families of fallen heroes.

Last year's event began in Brooksville at the Florida Wildland Firefighter Memorial and training center and ended in Decaturville, Tenn., in memory of that town's fire chief.

"This is a dangerous job," said Elder, who serves as a pallbearer and commander for the South Florida region of the Forest Service Honor Guard.

A division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Forest Service is "not just about fires," Elder explained.

The agency works with landowners, providing them with tree planting and land management advice.

They also manage state forest and over a million acres of sustainable forest land acquired through Preservation 2000 and its successor, the Florida Forever land conservation program.