By Mark Davis,
public affairs specialist
When he started working more than three decades ago at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Reginald Forcine never considered one of the unwritten benefits of the job.
“You sometimes see bears when you’re in the helicopter,” Forcine said recently.
For someone raised in the woods near the refuge hugging the Florida-Georgia line, that’s a nice little bonus.
Another bonus – Forcine, whose friends call him “Reggie,” was recently named fire management officer for the 400,000-acre refuge. When lightning strikes, or management plans call for a controlled burn, he’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) guy keeping a close watch on the flames and the people who are working on the fire line.
“I have a great job,” said Forcine, 54, who began as a seasonal worker at the Folkston, Georgia refuge in 1984. Eight years later he went full time – literally, working his way up from the (forest) ground floor to his current position, which he started in late summer.
“Reggie is a true success story of someone who came into the National Wildlife Refuge system and worked hard and is dedicated to his craft,” said Michael Lusk, the refuge’s manager. “You can start at the beginning and rise to a level of success.”
It’s success tempered with a lot of responsibility. As fire management officer, Forcine oversees five others. Two are currently elsewhere – one working wildfires in California, the other battling flames in Wyoming. Forcine watches from thousands of miles away, worrying the details: Are they safe? Are their hours and time properly recorded?
And this year, an added concern: Are they avoiding COVID-19?
The refuge, like other service facilities and programs across the nation and elsewhere, is operating as never before during the pandemic. It has meant closed visitor centers and darkened offices, teleworking in guest bedrooms and conducting the business of conservation in teleconferences.
The pandemic has created an extra layer of concern, said Forcine. But nature needs its stewards, including those who watch and fight fires. Lightning, the cause of many Okefenokee fires, does not respect social distancing or working from home. Forcine stays prepared to put people on the ground and in the air to protect the nation’s largest refuge east of the Mississippi.
“He loves that swamp,” said Rob Wood, a Service zone fire management officer who was part of a committee that chose Forcine from four applicants for the job. “I’m tickled to death that he’s the [fire management officer} at Okefenokee.”
Forcine, Wood noted, started at a seasonal job “and never looked back.”
When Forcine recalls some of the fires he’s faced, one stands out. In April of 2011 lightning struck in the heart of the refuge. It devoured trees, vegetation and undergrowth, and soon had a name: Honey Prairie. It would burn until the winter holidays.
He recalls its birth – a lightning strike on the prairie where the flames originated. Alerted that a fire might have started in the refuge’s swamp, Forcine took a helicopter to look. As the machine thumped over the refuge’s islands and hammocks, he saw smoke. It looked like a dark exclamation point.
The 66-acre fire turned into a conflagration that burned more than 300,000 acres and brought firefighters from across the nation and elsewhere to fight it. But even with all that manpower, the fire was so formidable that it wasn’t considered officially extinguished until almost a year after it rose from the prairie. Forcine was there the whole time.
His career has taken Forcine far from the Folkston area where he was born and graduated high school. Forcine has fought fires in California, Texas, Louisiana, Montana, Wyoming and more. At those burns, Forcine said, he’s bumped into folks he came across in the flat reaches of coastal Georgia – his own refuge.
Firefighters form their own fraternity, their own sorority -- their initiation rites built from dust and smoke and flame and sweat.
“You can be in Wyoming, and someone will say, ‘Man, you were on that fire in Okee!” said Forcine, using the abbreviated term for the refuge.
Yes, the work can be dangerous, and yes, it can begin with something as uncertain as a lightning strike – no one knows when, or where, a bolt from heaven will hit the earth. Forcine doesn’t know when he will be called to respond, either.
But he does know this: When the job calls, he’s ready.
And if he gets to see a bear or two in the process, that’s fine, too.
Mark Davis, 404-679-7291, firstname.lastname@example.org