Bi-partisan legislative team advocates greater support for rural firefighters

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Reps. Joe Dorman and Gus Blackwell want to see rural firefighters get more state support.

“Rural fire departments in Oklahoma are getting hit on multiple fronts,” said Dorman, D-Rush Springs. “They are responding to around 75 percent of the wildfires in our state, but receiving less state funding than in the past. Now, a federal program has been halted that provides them with valuable vehicles and equipment.”

“We have had severe drought in Oklahoma this year and fire departments are feeling the strain,” said Blackwell, R-Laverne. “One of the rural fire departments in Northwest Oklahoma had to travel four hours to respond to the mutual aid call during the Fort Supply fire. That fire alone ate up most of their annual gas allowance.”

The pair of veteran lawmakers say rural fire departments across Oklahoma will be devastated by an agreement between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which stops making available excess DoD vehicles that are critical to rural fire departments’ ability to fight wildland fires.

Through two long-standing federal excess property programs, Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) and Firefighter Property program (FPP), Oklahoma Forestry Services has been able to assist rural fire departments by providing no-cost military trucks that are then re-manufactured into wildland engines and water tenders through its Rural Fire Assistance Program.

Currently there are 8,812 vehicle and pieces of equipment, valued at over $150 million, being utilized by Oklahoma’s rural fire departments.

According to a recent U.S. Drought Monitor report, May ended with 80 percent of the state in drought. Extreme-to-exceptional drought reached as high as 61 percent before the rains began late in the month and finished at 55 percent. Over one-quarter of the state remained in exceptional drought, the worst classification, by the month’s end.

Oklahoma’s most recent spring ended as the tenth driest on record since 1895. The first five months of the year were the driest since 1936 and the third driest such period on record (since 1895).

“These drought conditions could make this wildfire season one of the worst we have seen in years,” Dorman said. “I do not feel we can run the risk of leaving our volunteer fire departments and those areas they serve around the state at risk over the rest of the year without the proper funding and resources to do their jobs.”

Wildfires in Oklahoma from 2005 to 2013 have burned 955,772 acres, or about 106,000 acres per year.  With more than 30,000 acres burned this May, there has already been more damage than the 18,394 acres that burned in 2013.

Dorman, the senior Democratic member of the House General Conference Committee on Appropriations said that rural fire departments receive an appropriation through the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

The agency was forced to cut support to rural fire departments in response to budget cuts in recent years. Specifically, the 80/20 grants provided to fire departments have been reduced due to cuts. 

The Rural Economic Action Plan, which among other things provides funding to rural fire departments, took a cut of 5.5 percent in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget signed by Gov. Mary Fallin. Over the years, it has been reduced from $15 million to $10 million, according to a joint press release from Dorman and Blackwell.

In their joint release, the two lawmakers said an increase in funding for rural fire departments is of critical importance and easily affordable. An increase of $5 million, for example, would have a significant positive impact, but almost no effect on the budget, they said.

The two term-limited state lawmakers also urged Oklahoman’s with the means to support their local volunteer fire departments to get in touch with their fire chiefs about how they can offer assistance.