New law aimed at streamlining state fire aid

Newlaw aimed at streamlining state fire aid

1 March 2008

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South Dakota, USA — Counties and local fire departments on South Dakotaprairies can get help from the state in fighting fires through a new fundapproved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Rounds.

Under HB1071, signed by Rounds earlier this month, a state fire fund will paycosts incurred by the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression in battlingboth forest fires and emergency rangeland fires. Emergency rangeland fires aredefined in the bill as those outside the Black Hills Forest Fire ProtectionDistrict that the governor declares as an emergency and that the state firedivision helps suppress.

Many rural fire departments already can get assistance from other firedepartments through mutual aid agreements, but when a fire gets beyond theircapacity, the new law gives the state the ability to help put out the fire,according to George Williams, deputy secretary of agriculture.

Previously, such efforts were made through the state Office of EmergencyManagement, although the ag department also was involved, Williams said. “Itwas a duplication of efforts,” he said. The state agencies agreed to shiftresponsibility for such aid to the state Wildland Fire Division, he said.

State Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe said the change streamlines the process.

The fund also would pay:

* Costs incurred by the governor in authorizing fire-prevention measures

* Costs incurred by the secretary of agriculture in hiring firefighting forcesto assist any other fire-suppression agency, regardless of whether the fire iswithin the state borders, assuming the agency has an agreement with the SouthDakota Department of Agriculture

Lowe said the state will join the effort on a fire if a county has exhausted itsresources. The state can then bring in airplanes, hand crews, fire engines,bulldozers and fire managers, Lowe said. All costs will be paid from the statefire fund.

Williams said there is no funding mechanism for the fire fund, but theLegislature will appropriate money for fire costs from the year before.

Pennington County Fire Coordinator Denny Gorton praised the new law. “Thebill certainly does give state wildland fire the authority to come out andassist the local departments, which will only be a benefit,” Gorton said.

Gorton said huge prairie fires, like those seen in the past few years, canquickly use up resources, especially in small counties.

Gorton said another state program, to reimburse volunteer fire departments for90 percent of their firefighting costs, was prompted by prairie fires thatburned more than 150,000 acres in 2006.

Kristi Turman, director of the state Office of Emergency Management, said heroffice will again administer the 90-10 reimbursement program aimed at keepingsmall rural fire departments financially afloat when they face huge blazes. Thereimbursement requires a declaration of emergency from the governor, Turman said.

“We were seeing fire departments responding to multiple outbreaks andsometimes using up their fuel budget in one fire response,” Turman saidthis week. They also wore out or damaged tires, pumps and hoses quickly in thebig fires of 2006.

In such cases, the state reimburses the local department for 90 percent of itsfuel and equipment costs.

Marty Hanson, chief of the Philip Volunteer Fire Department, is grateful for the90-10 program, especially during the 2006 fire season. “That savedthree-fourths or all of the small volunteer fire departments West River,”he said.

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