An occupation forged in flames
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2001
POLK CITY -- When Timber Weller became a Florida forest ranger in 1987, he went out of his way to learn about fire, showing up on off days to study "the beast" as it crackled along the forest floor or raged across the tree tops.
He figured the practice would "keep my behind safe in the long run." And for most of his career, it did.
Eight years ago this month, Weller was fighting a small wildfire in Putnam County when it shifted direction and blew up into a 160-foot-high wall of flame.
With nowhere to run, Weller took refuge in the only thing around that wasn't going to burn: the standard-issue bulldozer that Florida rangers use to plow barriers against fire. He crouched forward and held his breath to avoid a fatal burn to his airways.
Moving at 55 mph, the inferno rushed over him so fast that the paint on his tractor never bubbled. Weller, however, was left with second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body.
The lab that analyzed his clothing determined the fire exposed him to 550-degree heat for 35 seconds.
"It defied the laws of gravity," Weller says.
Weller lives today on what he calls "bonus time." His remarkable recovery has placed him on the front lines of a fledgling state effort to fight wildfires a different way: with words.
Sometimes strong words.
"You can't save people from their own ignorance," says Weller, one of six wildfire mitigation specialists appointed by the Florida Division of Forestry in 1999 to preach to people about making homes more resistant to wildfires.
Once a rural problem that allowed rangers to work more slowly while flames perform their natural forest-cleaning role, wildfires today demand a more urgent response in populous Florida.
The problem is especially acute this winter as Florida, coming off its driest year on record, endures its worst drought since the 1930s.
"What we've got to do in Florida is change the paradigm: firefighter, hero; homeowner, victim," says Weller, 37, whose territory includes Tampa Bay. "It has to become a partnership."
The new public education program is the division's response to the wildfires that spread across eastern and central Florida in 1998, leaping over interstate highways and intercoastal waterways and generally confounding a human resistance that included 10,000 extra firefighters from across the nation.
In many places, forest rangers could only watch as the fires attacked homes and neighborhoods that were ill-prepared for such a calamity. Houses were too close to the woods. Fences and hedges were lined up in ways that turned them into fuses. Too many yards were filled with brush or firewood or highly combustible cypress mulch. And too many subdivisions had narrow gates or small cul de sacs that prevented fire trucks from getting close.
Today, when conditions become ripe for fire in a county, the Forestry Division sends a strike team that includes Weller or one of his colleagues. They talk to civic groups, schools, neighborhood associations, developers and the media. They walk door-to-door.
"Timber's new job is basically to say, 'Folks, there's things you can do if you want to live here. You better learn to live with fire and how to design and protect your property,' " says Michael C. Long, assistant director of the Forestry Division.
Weller's lectures also include information about the need for prescribed burns, controlled fires set by authorities to reduce the natural fuels that lead to wildfires.
The education program seems to be paying off. In counties where the strike teams have been active, the rate of fire starts is down.
Over years of fishing trips and fire calls, Weller and fellow ranger Tracy Walters had come to believe that fire was a living, unpredictable "beast."
"You can hear it growl," Weller says.
On March 11, 1993, as Weller battled a one-acre wildfire alone, the beast caught up with him.
He had done everything right, investigators concluded later. He had taken his tractor to the leading edge of the fire, a dangerous but necessary maneuver.
"He made good choices; it's just that the wind switched, and the fire blew up," says Long, the Forestry Division's assistant director.
When Long arrived at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Weller's mother, Misty, was there, "almost swearing at him," Long recalls. "She said, 'You're not going to die. You're not going to give up.' "
Weller endured two months in the hospital and a painful recovery that required him to wear skin-tight burn suits and a mask for more than a year and a half.
By several accounts, he worked hard at physical therapy and progressed faster than doctors imagined, adopting his mother's view that pity would get him nowhere. Misty Weller had raised her three children alone, Timber Weller recalls. She often told them that if they wanted sympathy, they could find it in the dictionary.
Paper-thin skin grafts meant that Weller no longer had pores over most of his body and couldn't endure the heat of a ranger's job. The Forestry Division did as much as it could, Long said, but eventually Weller's benefits ran out, and he was forced to leave.
"My looks had been degraded; my lifestyle had changed. . . . But that's not what bothered me," Weller says. "What bothered me was that all that knowledge and experience I had accumulated was going to go down the tubes."
A World War II buff, he got a history degree from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and planned to teach. Shortly after he graduated in 1998, the wildfires hit Florida, prompting the state to create the job of mitigation specialist, a position that pays about $30,000 a year.
"It sounded like it was designed for me," Weller says. "It's kind of hard to decline somebody named Timber who has all this experience."
The job lacks the adrenaline rush of fighting fires, so now Weller's thrills come as he rumbles across North Florida's highways in a Harley-Davidson Sportster.
"Sometimes I'll be riding my motorcycle to work, and I'll be laughing inside my helmet," he says. "I'm tickled to go to work every day -- a little too tickled some days."
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