Most Missourians are familiar with the work the Conservation Department does to care for the forest, fish and wildlife resources of the state. We help private landowners manage their woodlots, we develop wildlife habitat, and we stock fish, enforce wildlife laws and maintain conservation areas for public use.
The Conservation Department also works with many partners to develop and protect Missouri’s natural resources. Private conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited, raise money and volunteer time to purchase and develop forests and wildlife habitat.
However, not many people know of the Conservation Department’s long standing relationship with Missouri’s volunteer rural fire departments.
Since the formation of the Department in the late-1930s, we have worked hand-in-hand with rural fire departments to reduce the number of wildfires in the state. In the early days, when budgets were nearly non-existent, help came in the form of a bundle of broom rakes and some on-the-job-training on how to battle woods fires. With the addition of the conservation sales tax and Forest Service funding, we were able to develop training programs and fund equipment so fire departments could be safer and more efficient at their jobs.
The Federal Excess Personal Property program has provided a way to put more equipment into the hands of rural fire departments. Vehicles and other equipment that is declared excess property by the military and other federal agencies is obtained by the Conservation Department and is then passed on to fire departments. The departments usually buy additional equipment and invest a lot of “sweat equity” to convert the old vehicles into firefighting apparatus. Currently, more than $39 million worth of excess equipment is in service with local fire departments. Although this equipment is used for natural-cover fires, it is also available for structure fires and other community emergencies.
Even though excess property helps, firefighting and safety equipment is very expensive. Outfitting a firefighter with personal safety equipment often costs several hundred dollars. Cost-share grant programs, using Conservation Department and Forest Service money, provides a way for fire departments to purchase this much-needed equipment. Unfortunately, the demand is much greater than available funds. Still, 138 fire departments shared a total of more than $200,000 this year to buy equipment to battle natural-cover fires.
We know that fire prevention messages are most effective if they come from one of your neighbors. Years of work in fire prevention and education have paid off. One of the first foresters in Missouri noted that three-fourths of the Ozarks burned at least once a year. Last year, about 54,000 acres of forest and grassland burned—only about one-tenth of one percent of Missouri’s 44 million acres.
Through the cooperation of rural fire departments and Conservation Department, we have come a long way in reducing the number of wildfires in the state. But there is still much work to be done. Humans cause nearly all the wildfires in Missouri. Debris burning and arson are the leading causes of fire. An unwatched burning barrel or carelessly tossed match is all it takes to burn acres of forest and wildlife habitat, and possibly someone’s home.
Today, more than 900 Missouri rural fire departments are our first line of defense against wildfires. Volunteer firefighters—men and women—donate time, gasoline and equipment, and they put their lives on the line to protect precious lives, property and natural resources. These citizens, working to protect our natural resources, are part of the other side of conservation.
Bob Krepps, Forestry Division Administrator
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