Volunteer firefighters: underfunded, undermanned – and first line of defense

Firefighters from across Kansas and Oklahoma battle a major wildfire near Protection. (March 7, 2017)
Firefighters from across Kansas and Oklahoma battle a major wildfire near Protection. (March 7, 2017) Eagle file photo

Kansas has struggled to protect itself from massive wildfires for two years in a row.

On March 6, Englewood, a typically small, underfunded fire department, had only five trucks, two of which broke down, as more than a dozen houses in town burned to the ground.

Now, volunteer firefighters who make up 90 percent of the state’s firefighters say they need additional funding.

Kansas spends less at the state level on firefighting than almost any state, about $300,000. So when the biggest fire in the state was burning through Clark County in March, Kansas didn’t have any resources to send to help local firefighters.

Local departments are in the best position to stop these fires before they get large, said Brian Hind, who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 25 years in Greenwood County. The Starbuck fire on March 6 burned more than 450,000 acres in Kansas after burning nearly 200,000 acres in Oklahoma. Once the fire got going, “I doubt there was enough firetrucks if all the trucks in the state of Kansas would’ve gotten into it,” Hind said.

Firefighters from across the state battle wildfires Monday night and Tuesday morning near the towns of Protection and Ashland. Thousands of acres were burned by wind driven fires. (video by Bo Rader / / March 6, 2017)

It’s up to the local departments, like the one in Greenwood County, which can respond quickly and which have the best chance at preventing wildfires from getting out of hand.

“A grassfire moves fast,” Hind said. “The biggest fire we’ve ever had was 30,000 acres, and it was a six-hour deal. So when do you pull the trigger on when the state is going to help you? You don’t have two or three days; normally, you’re talking hours.”

The ability to fight fires has become increasingly precarious, just as the fire danger in Kansas appears to be worsening.

A presentation last year at the state firefighter’s convention highlighted the two biggest risks to firefighters: heart attacks from overexertion and vehicle accidents. Many of the volunteer firefighters are not in shape and are driving equipment that easily breaks down.

The problem is that local departments don’t have the resources or manpower they need.

“You have to look at the population of the state, especially in the rural communities, the volunteer base isn’t there,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association. “So manpower is a problem. The funding isn’t there, there is less tax base. So it’s getting harder and harder for these small communities to adequately fund these departments.”

Dire circumstances

The cost of a new firetruck would take up the entire $55,000 budget for the Ashland department, according to its chief, Dave Redger. Ashland was evacuated during the Starbuck fire, and areas around the city suffered some of the most extensive damage.

Most of the department’s money goes to insurance, utilities at the station, fuel and training. Not to mention the up to $2,500 he said it costs for protective gear for each firefighter.

Ashland volunteer firefighter Bill Neier talks about the sack lunch he received from the kids at Fowler Grade School. (Video by Mike Pearce / The Wichita Eagle)

That means Ashland, like most volunteer departments, relies on old military vehicles, Redger said, and there’s not enough of those.

The hand-me-down and reconfigured equipment is often more than 25 or 30 years old and often breaks down when it is most needed. It costs extra to repair, because the military parts are not easy to find.

And the military trucks don’t have enough power, Hind said: They go as slow as 15 or 20 mph uphill and plod along the highway.

One of the reasons Greenwood County didn’t send trucks to last year’s Anderson Creek or this year’s Starbuck fires, Hind said, is because of how long it takes the trucks to travel. Both fires were several counties away.

“They are cheap and they are pretty durable,” Hind said of the trucks. “But if I could sit down and have any truck I wanted to put a firetruck on, that military (truck) would not be at the top of my list.”

However, the military trucks are better than other cheap alternatives, some firefighters say.

“They carry more water than a pickup truck, they can cover rougher terrain than a pickup truck, and while not impervious to damage, seem to be greatly resistant to it,” said Dwight Call, a volunteer firefighter in Chautauqua County. “They were, after all, designed for war zones.”

The problem for Call is that there aren’t enough of the trucks available.

If his department gets trucks through the Forest Service, they are either free or half-price, he said. Through private sales, they cost at least $10,000, which is a third of the county’s entire fire budget.

“$10,000 is just for the truck,” Call said. “We still have to buy tanks, pumps, hoses, lights and nozzles and donate countless hours of labor to have a functioning grass rig.”

Because the equipment is so old and not intended for firefighting, the departments spend most of their bimonthly training time repairing and retrofitting trucks.

They rely on matching-fund grants, according to Redger, the fire chief in Ashland, so that means it may take several years to purchase all of the pieces to put a truck together: one year the truck itself, the next year the water tank, the following year a foam unit for fire retardant.

But Redger is reluctant to send these cobbled-together trucks to help other counties because it’s expensive to retrieve them if they break down, let alone find the obscure military parts needed to fix them.

Fewer volunteers

Most rural counties have been shrinking in population for decades, so there are fewer people who can volunteer. And of the adults who are still around, fewer of them are self-employed, work nearby or have employers who let their employees off work to fight fires, according to Hind.

Greenwood is in a better position today than 10 years ago because of luck, Hind said: A handful of young men have stuck around and started work at a local valve factory. The factory usually lets a couple of them off to fight fires.

But that wasn’t always the case, and it’s not typical for most rural departments, Hind said.

Some years it’s manageable. But one year Hind was paged more than 40 times, and that meant his farm work suffered. He’d be out late at night feeding his animals, and his friend, a propane salesman, would deliver propane by moonlight after a day of firefighting.

Political firefights

Firefighters get their money from local property taxes, so if firefighters want more funding, according to Flory, they will likely have to take the matter into their own hands.

That’s what Hind did. About eight years ago, Hind ran for the Greenwood County Commission, in part so he could advocate better for the fire department.

“A group of us had gone to the County Commission on several occasions begging for better firetrucks. We got disregarded, is what we got,” Hind said. “So one of the reasons I ran is I wanted to upgrade the fire equipment. And it’s been a really slow process.”

He won election in 2010. The commission hiked the mill levy to increase its fire budget and he then persuaded them to buy three new trucks.

Even after the increased funding, the county would need to allocate another $100,000 per year to replace its fleet of 40 vehicles on a regular basis.

One place they are not counting on for help is the state.

“If we had to depend on (Gov. Sam) Brownback for funding of our rural firefighting efforts,” Hind said, “we’d still be fighting prairie fires with wet burlap bags, like my grandfather and his peers used to.”

State resources second

Counties are pretty good at helping their neighbors, Hind said, but once the fires get really large and require help from farther away, some state coordination could help, he said.

“When you get into those big fire situations, you’re a little reluctant to send trucks out because you don’t know when there will be a fire at home,” Hind said. “And if you don’t get on it fast, it will get out of control.”

Greenwood didn’t send trucks to the Starbuck fire, even though it was fortunate not to have any fires at home.

“We were under pretty severe fire conditions ourselves at that time, too, and I am not great at shooting from the hip,” Hind said. “After the fact, we decided we could have sent a truck or two. Had more planning been done previous to the actual fire, our county response might have been more automatic.”

Greenwood could support some of it neighboring counties as well, Hind said, then those neighboring counties could go help and, like a wave, more resources could arrive more quickly, without jeopardizing the home counties.

But right now, the state doesn’t have a system to organize mutual aid well, according to a speech given by Brad Smith, the president of the state fire chief’s association, at the state’s annual firefighter convention last year.

And aerial support, such as the state’s helicopters, can help, but volunteer departments are reluctant to call for state aid until it’s too late, according to Hind. During a fire in the 1990s, he remembers, the local chief called for help until he heard how much it cost.

“ ‘You do realize this is going to cost either $2,000 or $2,500 an hour?’ ” Hind said he remembers the dispatcher telling the fire chief. “The chief said. ‘Forget that; we’d go through our whole budget in one afternoon.’ ”

The helicopters would have been paid for if the state had declared it an emergency. The fire burned out before there was a chance to declare a disaster, but only after it had burned tens of thousands of acres.

JD Heitman, a volunteer firefighter, describes what fighting the fire was like near Protection, Kansas. (Oliver Morrison/The Wichita Eagle)

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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