Richard Smith is twice blessed.
On Monday, the Florida Forest Service announced that the senior forest ranger of the Tallahassee Forestry Center has been selected as the 2019 Florida State Elks Association Firefighter First Responder of the Year.
The announcement comes on the heels of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Cabinet recognizing Smith as the 2018 Forestry Firefighter of the Year at The Capitol in April.
Smith will receive his second prestigious award at the annual state convention of the Florida State Elks Association later this month.
The 40-year-old Eastpoint resident, husband of Sissy Smith, and son of Richard and Morna Smith, of Apalachicola, has distinguished himself among his peers over the last 18 years as a wildland firefighter with the Florida Forest Service in Franklin County, helping to manage the work in Tate’s Hell State Forest.
A 1996 graduate of Apalachicola High School, he started out pursuing a career in mechanics after attending Haney Vo Tech, but in 2001 decided a career in forestry was for him.
On a regular basis, he handles prescribed burning and road maintenance, part of a seven-person crew that focuses on the west side of the county. A leader in wildfire prevention, mitigation and suppression, Smith was a vital asset in the initial attack force on the Lime Rock Road Fire in Eastpoint last year. No lives were lost and many homes were saved because of Smith’s courageous, organized efforts and efficient response.
“It’s an honor to receive it but it’s a team effort,” he said, while accompanying his son’s middle school field trip to Orlando. “It’s not me, it took a lot of people who I work with for me to achieve that.”
In addition to his work here at home, where he averages, as lead burner, about 20,000 acres per year, Smith has traveled throughout the United States, assisting with wildfires.
He’s been to Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Utah, California, Alaska, Montana, and most recently Nevada, handling everything from firefighting to working with helicopter crews and as a heavy equipment operator.
These are volunteer assignments, the only requirement a willingness to be away from home and family. And to be able to carry a 45-pound pack three miles in 45 minutes.
Plus he’s done a lot of hurricane assignments around Florida, including Dennis, Ivan, and Charlie, and any other disaster that may befall the state.
As a member of the Region 1 task force, which serves counties from Pensacola to Tallahassee, Smith has become an expert in handling all aspects of the work of the crew, which include two heavies (a large 850 John Deere dozer), two mediums (a 650 John Deere) two engines, which are small water trucks, a mechanic and a strike team leader and assistant.
“With hurricanes originally we would hand out water and ice and MREs (meals ready to eat),” he said. "Now we manage that, setting up an incident command system where you manage the disaster and take care of the problems.”
The father of four and grandfather of two, Smith said the crews' work is enhanced because of his colleagues’ longevity. “Some have been there since the time I started,” he said.
“When I started everyone was young. We have more experience; we burn more acres and get a lot done,” Smith said.
“Richard is a strong leader, dedicated wildland firefighter and valued employee in our agency,” said Jim Karels, state forester and director of the Florida Forest Service. “He clearly demonstrates our wildland firefighters’ commitment to serve and protect Floridians. I congratulate Richard on these well-deserved honors and thank him for his selfless service.”
The Florida Forest Service, a division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, manages more than 1 million acres of state forests and provides forest management assistance on more than 17 million acres of private and community forests. The Florida Forest Service is also responsible for protecting homes, forestland and natural resources from the devastating effects of wildfire on more than 26 million acres. Learn more at FloridaForestService.com.