Partners in Rural Fire Protection

By Bill Altman | December 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2004

In its infancy, the Missouri Department of Conservation faced serious challenges to its mission of conserving the state's forest, fish and wildlife resources. Misuse of fire was so prevalent that Missouri's state forester at the time said that protecting Missouri's forests from the ravages of wildfire was impossible.

Fortunately, efforts to control the spread of fire across Missouri did not cease. In addition to fighting fires, the Conservation Department helped the public understand the dangers of indiscriminate burning.

Although burning under specific parameters and in suitable types of vegetation is a valuable management tool, uncontrolled, repeated fire in Missouri's hardwood forests can cause great damage.

Intense fires that occurred during the early days of the Conservation Department killed or heavily damaged the young trees that had regenerated after the old-growth forest was removed. Even if they survived, fire-damaged trees had little value for wood products. They were also susceptible to breaking and toppling during wind and ice storms.

Wildfires also consumed the protective duff and humus layer of the forest floor, leading to erosion.

In many areas, erosion of the thin top layer of soil undermined an area's ability to regenerate vegetation. Steep, barren hillsides and other areas where the forest floor was unprotected were vulnerable to erosion. Runoff from the bare hills deposited this precious soil into streams and rivers, where it was carried away forever.

Because controlling wildfires was basic to establishing healthy forests, the new Conservation Department made this its priority. It began by organizing forest-fire protection districts in southern Missouri to manage the suppression effort. It worked hard to teach the public about fire prevention. The Department also built fire towers across the entire Ozarks to help detect fires.

The Conservation Department developed or obtained new fire suppression tools, including crawler tractors that pulled rear-mounted plows and gasoline powered leaf blowers. They also formed partnerships for fire suppression with the U.S. Forest Service and with the rural volunteer fire departments that were emerging across the state.

Through tenacious work, the Department began to gain some ground on the "impossible" task of wildfire suppression.

Volunteer fire departments gradually became our most important partners in controlling fire in Missouri. A program developed in the 1960s allowed excess federal property, primarily from the military, to be used by rural volunteer fire departments. The Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) Program, as it is now called, loaned excess military property to rural fire departments. Jeeps, 4X4 and 6X6 trucks, and a variety of smaller items, like pumps, hoses, and water tanks, were valuable assets to local fire-fighting organizations.

The Conservation Department, the U.S. Forest Service and private forestry entities channeled federal matching grants to rural fire departments for purchasing fire fighting equipment. Later, funds from the Conservation Sales Tax began to supplement federal funds. While the amount of money for these grants varies greatly from year to year, both federal and state fire department grant programs still exist. All fire departments serving a population of less than 10,000 may participate in these two programs by entering into a mutual aid agreement with the Conservation Department.

The value of the partnership among the Conservation Department, the Forest Service and volunteer fire departments was never more evident than in 1980. That summer brought heat and drought not seen in Missouri since the 1930s. The hot, dry conditions began that year in early June, turning the state's woodlands into a tinderbox. Hardly any rain fell anywhere in the state.

By mid-July, high temperatures often ranged between 105 and 110 degrees, but sometimes pushed as high as 115 degrees. On many days the wind howled out of the southwest at 20 to 30 miles per hour.

From a firefighter's (and a forester's) perspective, the whole state seemed to catch fire. Majestic oaks and other hardwood trees that appeared to have green leaves often burst into flames that jumped from tree to tree. By October, when those torrid conditions finally relented, firefighters were exhausted. Without the assistance of the rural volunteer firefighters, losses of property and wildland acreage would have been much greater.

The experience frightened many Missouri citizens. In response, rural communities across the state began to understand the value of properly equipping and training their local volunteer fire departments.

In some areas, citizens voted for tax-supported fire protection districts. In other communities, people became supportive of their fire department through membership dues and fundraisers. Communities that had no fire protection formed local volunteer fire departments.

Even when well funded, operating a rural volunteer fire department is not easy. It needs a dedicated fire chief who has the leadership qualities to organize and maintain what can be a complicated enterprise. Usually, this person is not compensated for the many hours it takes to keep a fire department functioning effectively. The chief also has to be able to attract and retain volunteer firemen, who sacrifice their time to respond to fire calls and perform maintenance at the fire station.

Firefighters also have to be trained to fight both structural and wildland fire, which require different techniques. They also have to learn how to drive emergency vehicles, handle hazardous materials spills, and perform motor vehicle accident extrication and trench entrapment extrication. Volunteer firefighters also must have "first responder" and EMT skills.

Many rural fire departments now also respond to rescues of any type, as well as emergency medical response calls. These calls come at all hours. Volunteer firefighters are truly public servants.

Since 1980, rural volunteer fire departments have become "first responders" to wildfires in most parts of the state. The Conservation Department has a corps of active fire fighters to support volunteer fire departments. However, the ability of rural fire departments to handle most wildfires has allowed the Department's personnel to focus on other key forest management activities.

In addition to mutual aid agreements with the Conservation Department, most local fire service organization also have agreements with neighboring fire departments. In times of fire disasters, a system of statewide mutual aid can bring help wherever needed. In the fall of 1999, this system resulted in a coordinated response to a wildfire disaster occurring in the Lake of the Ozarks area.

Rural fire departments are often unnoticed by the residents of the communities they serve until an emergency arises. However, your local fire service needs your continued support. That support might be in the form of attending fire department fundraisers or campaigning for development of a tax-funded, fire protection district. It can also be as simple as showing your appreciation for their dedication as public servants by giving them a pat on the back, a handshake or a sincere "Thank you."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler