Washington, USA — Randy Hooker, 51, first began tinkering with the idea offirefighting in 1991 after a faulty coffee pot started a blaze that destroyedhis home near San Angelo, Texas, and devastated his family.
It took nearly an hour for firefighters to respond, he said, and they werejust a ragtag bunch of volunteers with two trucks rigged for fighting grassfires.By then, the house was overcome, and Hooker told the firefighters to focus oncontaining the flames that had spread to the grass, blazing toward neighbors’houses.
Part of the problem, then and now, Hooker says, is the lack of adequatefederal funding, something firefighters and fire coordinators across Texas areworrying about as fire seasons are becoming more unmanageable. About 10 yearsafter his house burned down, Hooker became a volunteer firefighter.
In 2006 alone, Hooker’s department battled 112 fires, double the numberduring 2005. Last fire season was the state’s deadliest in recorded history,said Mary Kay Hicks, a fire prevention specialist with the Texas Forest Service.Nineteen people were killed, including three volunteer firefighters, and morethan 2 million acres were burned. The fires cost $65 million to control andcaused more than $550 million in property loss.
Last year, the federal government spent $2 billion on wildfire suppressionalone.
Back in 1991, Hooker and his wife stood together and watched their home of 25years burn to debris and soot, his log cabin crackling as baby pictures of hisdaughters, then 10 and 7, his wife’s wedding dress, the gun his father had givenhim for dove hunting all turning to ash.
“I was left with my shirt, my pants and the few belongings in my pocket,”Hooker said. “Everything we had was gone. We rebuilt our lives from thenon.”
Hooker now heads the East Concho Volunteer Fire Department, a team of 21 menwho are electrical workers, engineering technicians, bus drivers and Wal-Martworkers by trade and firefighters by choice.
The team has four trucks, all at least 20 years old, and a tin headquartersbuilding just east of town. The department can rely on only about $6,000 fromTom Green County and what it can muster in donations. It applied for more than$40,000 in FEMA grants last year but didn’t get any, he said.
“Without federal money going to these programs, like FEMA, they’llalways tell the volunteers, We don’t have anymore money,'” Hooker said.
It’s a strain felt all across the country. The unprecedented wildfire seasonexhausted federal resources and left Congress $900 million short in maintainingcurrent fire preparedness. A Senate committee last week heard testimony from theGovernment Accountability Office and the Department of Agriculture and itsinspector general, all of whom made recommendations to improvecost-effectiveness.
They suggested keeping land clear of brush and debris to prevent fires, asingle commander over National Forest Service aerial forces and more pressure onlocal governments to pay for fighting fires, especially where houses are builtin the woods.
It’s just the thing that state fire officials and local firefighters don’twant to hear.
“If the feds start backing out of that, it’s going to be devastating toour volunteer fire departments,” said Ron Perry, the San Angelo city-countyemergency coordinator who recently left the Texas Forest Service.
Perry said that it’s one thing to say who’s going to pay for what, but it’smore complicated when there’s a disaster.
“I understand about budget processes and limitations on agencies on this,that and the other, but out here, we’re not going to ask questions if this is afederal land or a county land or a private land before we go out there and helpfolks,” Perry said. “In West Texas, if our neighbor’s in trouble,we’re going to go help them.”
Volunteer firefighters have increasingly turned to FEMA grants andreimbursements to pay for fighting fires declared national emergencies, butsometimes it’s not enough, and volunteers reach into their pockets. They alsorely heavily on federal grant money that’s distributed through the Texas ForestService.
The Texas Forest Service receives about 15 percent of its $45.7 millionbudget through federal grants, the majority from the National Forest Service.About 77 percent of its funds come from the state.
“Federal funding is very, very, very important because because theselocal fire departments, they don’t get money,” said Sandra Taylor, theTexas Forest Service fire prevention specialist who oversees San Angelo as wellas most of West and Central Texas. “When it gets out of control, they’retaking away money from their homes to put into the fire department, and that’sridiculous.”
Anticipating some federal cuts, the Texas Forest Service has offered up itsown fire prevention plan to the Texas Legislature, Hicks said. The plan callsfor an additional $20 million in state funding and promises to cut fire lossesby 80 percent.
The plan focuses on many of the same initiatives that federal officials areadvocating: more public education and fire prevention methods.
Right now, a large chunk – about a third – of the Texas Forest Service’sbudget is redistributed in grants to volunteer fire departments. The grants payfor new equipment, chipping in 75 percent to 90 percent and asking thevolunteers to raise the rest.
It’s one of these grants that allowed the Water Valley Volunteer FireDepartment to buy a rapid response vehicle – the department’s “pride andjoy,” said volunteer firefighter and San Angelo deputy clerk DeborahMichalewicz.
The team of 14 firefighters operates on about $17,500 a year – most raisedfrom an annual dinner, a silent auction and raffle tickets – and a tin fire barnfull of hand-me-down equipment.
Michalewicz, 56, said she worries that less funding will force volunteerdepartments out of existence.
“The people that make it happen freely give of their time, their familytime, their personal time, sometimes their work time, and they don’t getcompensated,” she said.
The biggest source of support, however, comes from the community itself, shesaid. Water Valley was one of the first departments to respond to devastatingfires in Sterling County on New Year’s Day last year. The fire wiped out morethan 40,000 acres of grazing land and took three days to contain.
Community members brought food and water to the firefighters, Michalewiczsaid, and people volunteered around the clock. When Michalewicz got home afterbattling the blaze, she found 16 messages on her answering machine, all frompeople telling her they were praying for her.
“I come home, and I smell to high heaven, and I’m tired, and my throatburns, and my eyes burn, and then I listen to these messages, and I guess thetears just clear all the smoke and make all the hurt go away,” she said.