Texas leans on volunteer firefighters

Texas leans on volunteer firefighters

05 December 2011

published by http://www.readthehorn.com 

USA — In order to cope with the lack of staff, Texas heavily depends on volunteer fire fighters to respond to wildfires as the state finds itself in a budget crisis.

When Matt Mery got news of the Bastrop fires in September he was sitting in a government classroom at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He knew it wouldn’t matter that he had a test the next day or a birthday party to attend that weekend; Mery would be suiting up with his fellow volunteer firefighters to try to contain this disaster.

Mery and his fellow volunteers are becoming the go-to responders for Texas’ fires as the state finds itself in a budget crisis. Early this year, the 2011 Texas Legislature Session cut the Commission on Fire Protection’s budget from $4.4 million to $2.7 million. Because of the shortage of funds, there are 879 volunteer fire departments in Texas and only 114 paid fire departments.

The budget cuts came at a year when Texas needed the Commission more than it ever had. The Texas Forest Service reported that since fire season began on Nov. 15, 2010, Texas Forest Service and local fire departments have responded to 28,385 fires that have burned 3,972,190 acres; a record for Texas.

Michael Boyd, firefighter from Round Rock Fire Department, felt the weight of the budget cuts during the Central Texas wildfires.

“Staffing for fire departments is based on many different factors and it is hard to say that there are ever enough public servants or equipment. We can always use more,” Boyd said.

In order to cope with the lack of staff, Texas heavily depends on volunteer fire fighters like Mery to respond to wildfires.

“It’s important to have the same training and experience as a paid fire fighter so when called to work nobody gets hurt,” Mery said. “As a volunteer, you can drive the trucks, work the pump, go into a burning building, pretty much everything a regular firefighter is doing.”

Larry Jantzen, Austin Fire Department battalion chief, also emphasized the role of these volunteers.

“Volunteers are a big, and often the only, firefighting resource in many rural areas,” Jantzen said, “Volunteers forsake their jobs and family life for long periods during situations like we are experiencing in central Texas this year and should be commended for their, and their families’ sacrifices.”

States that are used to this same scale of wildfires are more prepared. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the total fund expenditures for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have more than tripled in ten years. Firefighter Specialist Don Kunitomi, an inspector at the Los Angeles Fire Department, said his department doesn’t rely on volunteers at all.

“Ours is a 100 perecent paid fire department. We choose our candidates off a list of applications and they have to go through a background check they have to qualify medically and physically. If we need more firefighters to fight any type of incident, we can call those that are off duty,” Kunitomi said.

Volunteer firefighters won’t be getting a break any time soon. Central Texas dry weather conditions that put it at risk for wildfires are still present. Prior to Thanksgiving, 206 of the 254 counties in Texas had been placed under burn bans, an unprecedented amount at this time in the year. County judges are the final word on whether or not to put their county under a burn ban.

Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski first issued a burn ban on Jan. 26. She explained how the state will continue to fare in these disaster conditions.

“If we get just a little bit of rain and there is no jack frost to kill the grass then we might be able to lift it but I don’t see that happening until at least spring,” Bilski said, “For now, we have an outstanding network of volunteer firefighters to help. These citizens have other jobs and an outside life. They are doing this for the good of their community.”

The dry weather conditions have left Emma Long Metropolitan Park in Austin with an abundance of brush to clean up and rules to enforce. The park removed all flawed grills from their property to prevent fire risk. K Richelle Bass is the administrative assistant for Emma Long and has been fighting to try to get funds to help maintain the park.

“The important thing that nobody really thinks about is that the cost associated with doing clean up is pretty big. We’re going to have to put those grills up. And we’re going to have to clean that brush up and it’s probably going to go on for a few years.” Bass said.

The state government has just taken notice of the weight of clean up for Texas. The Austin Fire Department has recently been awarded a state grant for an additional brush truck for regional response. At this point in time there are no state moves towards increasing the budget for the Commission on Fire Protection Agency.

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