‘It’s up to us’: Volunteer firefighters give it their all – and then some

Lights often burn late in the decrepit 100-year-old building in Atlanta, Kan., population 194.

After long days at full-time jobs, Darren Grow and friends have been coming to the building about five nights per week since Christmas, trying to reconfigure a retired military vehicle into something they can use to fight fires.

“No way we could ever afford to buy something like that, ready to fight fires. It would be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Grow, volunteer fire chief for a region of Butler County. “We just have to figure out how to do things, ourselves, with whatever we’ve got.”

Some nights, Jim Unruh and others gathered in a similar building, smelling of the smoke from a fire they’d just spent hours subduing. Checking and repairing equipment had to be done before they could head home for showers.

“(Our equipment) has to be ready to go all the time. What if a call comes out for a (house) fire that night?” said Unruh, a volunteer fire chief based out of Marquette. “It’s up to us.”

About 90 percent of Kansas is protected by volunteer fire departments.

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Eric Ward, Kansas Forest Service fire specialist, doubts most Kansans know the challenge volunteer firefighters face or how much they offer.

“We’ve probably got around 16,000 firefighters in Kansas, but at least 13,000 of them are volunteers,” Ward said. “That’s a lot of people missing their kid’s ball games, leaving just as they’ve sat down for Christmas dinner or walking out of church because their pager’s gone off. It’s not just time fighting fires, either. There’s such a huge commitment to time behind the scenes.”

Kansas has more than 600 fire departments. Only about 30 of those – all in communities with populations of 10,000 or more – have full-time paid staff.

The rest are groups like those led by Grow and Unruh.

A matter of funding

Ward said that, economically, pure volunteer departments are about the only option for smaller towns and rural areas.

It takes more than $250,000 just to pay the salaries of two firefighters on duty all the time, Ward said.

“Most (fire departments) are supported by taxes, and you just can’t raise taxes high enough in most areas to fund something like that,” Ward said. “Many of our (volunteer) departments have an annual total budget of $10,000 to $20,000. That means money is always, always one of their biggest challenges.”

Randy Huffman, a fire chief for a volunteer district in Cowley County, is glad his unit gets about $58,000 annually from local property taxes. But, he stresses, nothing about fighting fires is cheap.

The special jacket, pants, gloves and helmet needed by every volunteer costs $4,000. Getting back and forth from fires can get expensive, too.

“Last year, I was spending $3,000 a month for fuel the first three months of the year,” Grow said. “It’s not uncommon to ruin a tire or two on a run, and you figure they’re $500 a pop.”

That doesn’t leave a lot of money for big-ticket items.

“It sure makes it hard to buy things when a (truck for fighting grassfires) costs in the neighborhood of $150,000, and you can spend $225,000 for a plain Jane fire engine,” said Hoffman. “You have to figure better ways to get more from your money.”

Rick Mitchell, Barber County volunteer fire chief, said his crew relied heavily on members who are “mechanics/magicians” to repair equipment after last year’s 390,000-acre Anderson Creek Wildfire. Most was fixed within a few days.

As well as simple repairs, most volunteer departments also have become good at custom building machines to fit their needs.

Unruh said volunteer departments, especially those covering remote areas, are constantly looking for ways to haul increased amounts of water.

His group’s biggest tanker holds about 5,000 gallons of water. That means the frame, drive train and engine have to be able to tote that 40,000-pound payload.

“That seems really huge,” he said of the water, “but I’ve been on fires when we needed to head out and refill it two, three or four times.”

With funding in short supply, volunteer fire chiefs depend heavily on discounts and gifts.

“We’re really fortunate we have a guy who’s great at writing grant proposals,” Hoffman said. “I’m guessing we’ve received in the neighborhood of $250,000 in the past 20 years. That’s not a lot per year, but it’s really helped a lot.”

Part of Ward’s state job is helping volunteer departments secure funding, often from federal programs. One option is a matching share program in which he can get up to $5,000 in federal money to match what a department can pay.

Another program locates machinery not being used by other government groups, like the military, and gets it to volunteer fire departments in Kansas. Often it’s a heavy-duty truck or vehicle that volunteers like Grow can adapt to fighting fires. The Kansas Forest Service also helps find homes for used firefighting equipment.

“For instance, there are bigger fire departments (in cities) that can afford to replace their fire hoses,” Ward said. “It used to be that stuff had to be destroyed because of liability fears. Now, it can be used by somebody else. Some of that gear may be 15 years old, but there’s almost always some smaller department that really needs it.”

Even with all of the programs, Ward said he’s confident many volunteers pay for a lot of parts, fuel and gear out of their own pockets.

As tough as it is for Kansas volunteer programs, most acknowledge it could be worse.

Steve Hirsch, a volunteer fire chief from Oberlin, is vice chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, which requires him to tour fire departments around the nation. He’s pleased with progress Kansas has made helping departments the past 20 or so years.

“Some of the programs and funding we have in Kansas aren’t that way someplace else,” he said. “There are still places in this country where the department also has to conduct their own fundraising projects to (totally fund) their departments.”

While many Kansas departments also have fundraisers, that money often goes toward special projects.

Hundreds of hours annually

The biggest donation Kansas volunteer firefighters make is their time. Hoffman and Grow said their groups probably spend more time tending equipment than going out on calls. Some fire groups meet weekly and have regular training sessions.

The number of calls varies from department to department. Hoffman estimates his crew gets called out 250 times a year, since they also attend things like car crashes, emergency medical needs and fire events being handled by the Winfield Fire Department.

Even rural areas have challenging times.

“Back in 2011, we got called out 22 times in 11 days,” said Troy Wolf, fire chief of a volunteer group based out of Johnson City, which is near the Colorado state line. “The alarm would go off, and you’d see people just drop their heads, but then they’d get up and get going.”

Most volunteer fire chiefs say the volunteer spirit remains pretty strong in their areas.

The time a fire occurs often determines how many people show up for the battle. Both fire chiefs know they’ll get more help at a midnight fire than one that happens midday.

Hoffman said there are employers who won’t let workers off to go battle a blaze. Some that do will dock the missed time from the volunteer’s paycheck.

Some volunteers travel sizable distances to get better-paying jobs, making it difficult to get home in time to help with a fire.

Unruh has volunteers who work in McPherson and Salina, both about a 40-minute drive away.

“But you know, we still have guys who will leave their job and drive back to help us with a fire,” Unruh said. “If they have time, they’ll drive back to work and finish their day. They’re pretty dedicated.”

Community support

As well as their staffs, rural fire chiefs said they can usually count on the people they serve to assist if needed. Residents will donate bottles of water or sack lunches to volunteers. Farmers will haul huge tanks of water or fill the firetrucks with fuel brought from their farms, for free.

This winter, Grow said, he went to a fundraiser for the tiny volunteer department at the Butler County village of Latham, population 150. He said the rural community surrounding the town raised around $12,000 for the fire department.

Wolf said alarms have barely sounded in his district when his cellphone rings with people asking what they can do to help.

“We had that big 38,000-acre fire in 2011, and we had all kinds of water trucks and 40 tractors come to help – 40,” Wolf said of farmers willing to disk or plow fire breaks. “You know, they’re out there putting their lives on the line just like we are. If their tractor dies and it burns up, that’s a lot of money, but they’re out there.”

Knowing there’s that kind of support helps keep many volunteer departments going.

“I grew up around it because my dad was a fire chief for 24, 25 years, but I know a lot of us see it as a way to give back to our communities,” Grow said. “It’s always a struggle, all of it, but if volunteers don’t step up and take care of things, who will? It’s up to us.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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