WASHINGTON – Back in 1975,when Ray King started fighting fires as a 16-year-old,the biggest challenge Merkel volunteer firefighters faced was grassfires started by trains.
Now in Trent,one of the toughest obstacles for King and 17 other firefighters is footing the bill.
King and other Big Country volunteer fire officials worry about the scarcity of funds as their jobs expand to include roles as first responders and medics,their equipment wears out and another fire season begins.
''Our town is 318 people,and you can tap their billfolds pretty quick,'' said King,Trent Volunteer Fire Department chief.
Recent federal recommendations for local governments to pick up more of the firefighting tab is bad news for local firefighters and state officials.
''Federal funding is very,very,very important because these local fire departments,they don't get money,'' said Sandra Taylor,a Texas Forest Service fire prevention specialist. ''When it gets out of control,they're taking away money from their homes to put into the fire department,and that's ridiculous.''
Recent dry,windy conditions have increased the danger of wildfires this year,but fire departments are still digging into their pockets to pay for last fire season's efforts.
In Texas,it was the deadliest fire season in recorded history,said Mary Kay Hicks,a fire prevention specialist with the Texas Forest Service. Nineteen people died and more than 2 million acres burned.
The last fire season stretched from April 2005 to September 2006.
''We were burning from border to border for over 400 days,'' said Les Rogers,Texas Forest Service assistant chief regional fire coordinator for the Abilene area.
Last year was the busiest ever for the Potosi Volunteer Fire Department,said Chief Aaron Maxwell,24. Potosi responded to 190 calls,nearly triple the number in 2002 – all on an annual budget of about $12,000.
''We have run on community funds in times past,but a lot of departments are counting on grants because demands are greater every day on volunteers,'' said 56-year-old Don Russom,Mulberry Canyon fire chief and president of the Big Country Firefighter's Association.
The Texas Forest Service relies on the federal government for 15 percent of its budget. About one-third of the Texas Forest Service's budget helps volunteer fire departments pay for new equipment through grants.
Recently,the U.S. Forest Service presented a budget asking for a 23 percent funding increase to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. It was called “dead on arrival” by several senators and staff members.
If the U.S. Forest Service has to divert funds from other programs to cover the summer fire season,grants could be reduced to make up shortfalls,said Mark Stanford,Texas Forest Service fire operations chief. He said he understands why volunteer departments are worried.
“If you look at is as a pie,the pie's only so big,” Stanford said. “Does that make the U.S. Forest Service the bad guys? No,it just is what it is. The funding's got to come from somewhere.”
The Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Agriculture Department's inspector general are calling for more efficient cost management,congressional officials said. Nationwide,the 2006 fire season wiped out the U.S. Forest Service's $500 million contingency fund.
''If you just cut costs,you end up in a situation where there's a fire,and there's no one there to attend to it,'' said Scott Miller,counsel to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. ''We want to remain as successful as we are right now in managing wildfires but to do so with fewer costs.''
Miller said ideas such as clearing brush and centralizing helicopters and the elite federal hotshot crews would ''save a little bit here and there.''
Stanford said he thinks Texas firefighters would be less affected by federal cost containment efforts than other states with more federal land and less state funding.
For rural fire departments near Abilene,it's already tough to make ends meet.
''A lot of times we struggle to put gas in our vehicles,'' said Merkel Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steve Cochran,49. ''You just hope you have a good fundraiser or a nice donation to keep fuel in there. You always hope that you're going to be back from one call when another one breaks out.''
Volunteer departments submit equipment wish lists to Taylor County,but most of their money comes from donations,fundraisers and the state and federal government.
And rural firefighters are no longer a ragtag bunch of volunteers with a couple of trucks rigged for fighting grassfires.
''We're having to have stricter training and have a lot more training,'' said Russom. ''Our role has expanded. Fire departments all across the nation are taking on medical emergencies because they have the people available.''
In Russom's 20-member department,six or seven are medically trained and certified with the Texas Health Department,he said. The team fights fires in 67 square miles,responds to car accidents and aids other departments.
''It strains our resources,it strains our people,and it certainly strains our equipment,'' Russom said.
2006: Texas' deadliest fire season on record
- 19 people killed,including 3 volunteer firefighters
- More than 2 million acres burned
- $65 million spent to fight fires
- $550 million in property losses
Source: Texas Forest Service