USA — Volunteer fire departments across Texas are constantly coming up with ways to raise money. There are chili suppers and spaghetti dinners and catfish fries. There are reportedly even some fundraisers that don’t involve food.
But one East Texas volunteer firefighter had an unconventional fundraising idea: Setting wildfires.
According to the Texarkana Gazette, last week Chad Gillenwater a 22-year-old volunteer with the Redwater VFD in Bowie County was sentenced to five years of deferred adjudication probation after pleading guilty to setting seven wildfires across the county last year.
His attorney, Public Defender Bart Craytor, said Gillenwater thought setting the fires would mean more funding for his department.
“He had hoped more calls would mean they’d get more grants,” Craytor said.
A pair of Big Country fire chiefs were incredulous Sunday after hearing about the case.
Billy Dezern, chief of the Clyde VFD, said that unfortunately, it’s not the first nor the last case of a young, inexperienced firefighter setting fires.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years, and every year I hear the same thing. Some of the young ones want to ‘put some wet stuff on some red stuff.’ Sadly, it happens,” Dezern said.
But the line about doing it to help his department doesn’t pass the sniff test, he said.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to hear that,” he said. “It’s actually the opposite effect. Any time you go out on a fire you’re putting your fellow firefighters at risk, and you’re wearing out equipment. It just blows my mind.”
The volume of fire calls also has no bearing on grant applications, he added.
“I’ve never been told that the more calls we get, the better our chances are,” he said.
Marty Smith, chief of the Putnam VFD, said he’s heard the same old saw about young firefighters sometimes starting fires.
“There’s probably some who do it looking for the adrenaline rush, not really thinking through the consequences,” he said.
Smith said he thought most firefighters had enough common sense to know starting a wildfire is a bad idea.
“We do have some younger firefighters, but most of them have been around firefighting a while, watching their dads or uncles do it. They realize the seriousness of a fire. They know the reality of fighting them,” he said.
“Most of them also know the wrath they’d face from their fellow firefighters if they ever got caught doing something like that,” he said.
Dezern said he didn’t think the wildfires-for-profit idea would catch on in West Texas.
“I think most fire departments would stick with chili suppers,” he said.