Smokey Bear, the world’s most popular wildfire prevention expert, turns 75 years old this year. For as long as Smokey’s been around, MDC has been fighting wildfires and helping Smokey spread the word of wildfire prevention.
Back when Smokey was just a bear cub, department staff would respond to and suppress almost all wildfires that occurred across Missouri’s landscape. As the state’s population has grown, so, too, has the number of local fire departments. That means the department’s role has evolved. Now rural fire departments suppress over 90% of wildfires that occur in Missouri.
“That’s a significant accomplishment, especially considering most are staffed by volunteers and operate on very limited budgets,” said MDC Fire Program Supervisor Ben Webster. “It shows their commitment and dedication to their communities and the natural resources around them.”
In Missouri, wildfire can occur year-round, but fall and early spring pose a significant fire danger when lots of dead grass and leaves serve as potential fuel. Anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 acres burn each year. When a fire starts, it sometimes requires MDC staff and volunteer firefighters working together.
“We still respond to wildland fires with heavy equipment and boots on the ground, but our role has changed,” said Webster “We make sure local fire departments have the tools, training, and equipment they need to suppress wildfires themselves.”
Allocating Equipment and Property
Each year the department funnels equipment and supplies to rural firefighters so they can keep Missouri’s landscapes safe. The equipment comes from federal excess property programs made possible through agreements with the U.S Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Defense.
MDC can access a variety of property from these programs, including vehicles, water tanks, trailers, generators, pumps, and even medical supplies. Once the federal agencies have no more use for the property, it’s made available through reutilization offices across the country.
In Missouri, it’s the department’s job to work with fire departments to find out what they need, and then be on the lookout for available property. Staff at the MDC Rural Forest Fire Equipment Center in Lebanon keep a spreadsheet of all the fire departments’ requests. When they’re alerted to the availability of new equipment, they check the spreadsheet and make a request through the office where the equipment is located.
“If the department is selected as the recipient of the surplus property, we pick it up,” said Kent Bassett, who manages the center. “Our facility here in Lebanon is the hub for every item that’s eventually routed to help fight wildland fire.”
To be eligible, fire departments must serve communities of less than 10,000 people. They work with local MDC forestry staff to submit requests, which are reviewed, scored, and prioritized. Budget, response capability, and need are all evaluated as part of the process.
Some rural fire departments have a dedicated tax base, while others are membership driven. They might have enough of a budget to handle the daily costs of fuel and equipment storage, but few have the flexibility to purchase brand new vehicles and equipment.
“You can have bake sales and fish fry fundraisers every day, but that will never get you enough to buy the big ticket equipment needed to fight fire,” said Bassett.
The surplus property programs do require a repair and maintenance commitment from local fire departments. Everything must be response ready within six months of its acquisition. Some property is on a loan-only basis, and other equipment becomes fire department property after they’ve met certain usage requirements.
Surplus Property Keeps Rural Fire in Business
Fire Chief Gerald Dick is responsible for wildfire control on the 40 square miles of Leesville Township, better known by its official name — the Tightwad Fire Protection District. Dick and the handful of volunteers at Tightwad take care of an area bordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property at Truman Lake. Dick says most people don’t realize the expense and know-how needed to fight wildfire.
“You can’t just take a standard fire truck and use it for wildfire. You’ve got to have something customized to go off road,” said Dick. “And there are no hydrants, so whatever water you need, you have to haul with you.”
There’s a fine line between usable surplus and junk, and Dick is responsible for making the vehicles functional and keeping their equipment in decent shape. He says over 80% of their vehicles and equipment have been acquired through the excess property process.
“We get what we can, and we keep it running,” said Dick. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.”
Those specialized trucks and water tanks don’t come cheap. Dick jokes that people assume he’s always on the lookout for a good deal, coming from Tightwad, but the reality is much more serious.
“Turning an old army vehicle into a wildfire truck instead of buying a new one is the difference between spending a few thousand dollars versus hundreds of thousands.”
Relying on Volunteers
Fire Chief Don Gaston leads the Houston Rural Fire Association and serves the area surrounding the City of Houston in Texas County. People pay a membership fee to belong and receive service. While they have about 800 members, there are no paid fire department staff.
“We rely on volunteers to staff the fire association,” said Gaston. “We have 18 people right now, and most work full time jobs, too.”
Gaston says the association gets much-needed equipment from the excess property center all the time. They’ve received brush trucks, water pumps, and even picked up some surplus sweaters once.
“They were probably jacket liners or something, but the guys used them a lot,” said Gaston. “That just shows we will use whatever we can. It doesn’t go to waste.” From sweaters to brush trucks, Gaston confirms that the equipment they receive is necessary for them to do their jobs.
“For a lot of small fire departments, we’re just one big breakdown away from being unable to respond to a fire,” he said. “We have to depend on the excess property because budgets are tight.”
Ready for Anything
Kevin Hurtubise is chief of the Rocky Mount Fire Protection District in Morgan County. With their tax-based structure, they have three paid staff members and 15 volunteer firefighters. Most of their firefighting takes place on the hilly, wooded landscape of the Lake of the Ozarks.
“While 70% of our work is wildfire, we have to be prepared for the tents, RVs, and other structures you might not usually find out in the woods,” said Hurtubise. “The Lake is a big tourist destination, so we go from a winter population of 3,400 people to over 150,000 in the summer season.”
More people means a higher risk of accidental fire. The firefighters stay ready with vehicles at four different stations across their 56-square-mile area, ready to respond.
“Just in the last few years, we’ve acquired a brush truck and a military vehicle we converted to our pump truck,” said Hurtubise. “We couldn’t equip all our stations and respond to fires without the equipment we’ve received.”
Remember Smokey: You Can Help
Fire departments who take advantage of these programs cover small towns and plenty of countryside. They protect Missouri’s farmlands, forests, and open prairies, and all the people and creatures who live there. They can use your help.
Always follow Smokey’s advice — Only You Can Prevent Wildfires. Get tips for being safe at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zxe or at smokeybear.com.
Think about becoming a volunteer firefighter. There is a statewide shortage of volunteers, and they’re looking for people who are willing and able to help.
Celebrate Smokey’s birthday, but skip the candles.
More Help for Small Communities
Every year, fire departments serving communities of less than 10,000 can apply for a 50% reimbursement grant to help buy equipment. These Volunteer Fire Assistance grants have been supplying equipment to small rural fire departments for over 30 years.
Approved applicants are reimbursed for up to half of the equipment’s purchase price, with a maximum reimbursement of $3,000. Typically, that means items such as drip torches, radios, backpack leaf blowers and pumps, fire resistant clothing, boots, brush rakes, and more.
Last year the department awarded grants to 184 rural fire departments, totaling $420,198 for safety and firefighting gear. Funds for the grants are provided by MDC and the U.S. Forest Service.
Burning trash or leaves? Watch out!
While Missouri doesn’t see the massive wildfire devastation that occurs in western states, Smokey Bear’s message is still critically important here. Anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 acres burn in Missouri every year, and 99% are human caused.
Most of Missouri’s wildfires are accidental, thoughtless, and totally preventable. Burning trash or other debris on a windy day, carelessly tossed cigarettes, children playing with matches, and improperly extinguished campfires are usually to blame.
Some wildfires in Missouri are deliberately set. Operation Forest Arson is a statewide initiative to stop arsonists, and citizen cooperation is essential. Any citizen can anonymously call and report an arson violation and potentially collect a reward.
Arsonists can be reported at 1-800-392-1111.