Funding sought for rural fire departments following wildfires
BY RHETT MORGAN World Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
9/04/12 at 7:22 AM
In Creek County, earth torched by ruinous wildfires is showing signs of healing.
"With the rain, we have green where there was black," said Carolyn Smythe, a captain with the Freedom Hill volunteer fire department in the northern part of the county. "In some places, you can't even see the scars."
The recovery could extend to rural and municipal fire departments by early 2013.
Creek County commissioners are discussing placing on the ballot in February a proposition for either a sales tax or property tax increase, Commissioner Newt Stephens said. Half of the money generated by the hike would be earmarked for roads and bridges, the balance for the county's fire districts, he said.
Creek County wildfires in August burned 58,500 acres, destroyed 376 homes and left homeless 75 Mannford Public Schools students and 30 Olive students. Hundreds of homes in Olive, Drumright, Mannford, Freedom Hill and other communities were evacuated because of the blazes.
"We're not looking to throw money at it," Stephens said. "We're not looking for a patch or a Band-Aid. We're looking for a solution."
Officials have talked about a 5 mill property tax hike, or $5 per $1,000 of assessed value, he said. That would raise property taxes an average of $35 to $50 per year and generate a total of about $2 million, Stephens said.
Commissioners also have discussed a third-cent sales tax increase that would bring in roughly $1.77 million annually, he said.
Twenty-five fire agencies serve Creek County, 20 of which are county-based, Stephens said.
"Most of them are running old forestry trucks," he said of the volunteer departments. "The reason forestry sold them was because they were worn out. This gives them an opportunity to buy equipment that these boys will be proud of and take care of.
"What we went through this year, as a commissioner I can't sit back and go, 'Hopefully, it won't happen again.' We have to learn from this stuff and proceed forward and protect the citizens. That's where the needs are, some big money to make a difference."
Bob Jones, executive director of Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System, said the state has about 4,409 paid firefighters. Of the 8,409 volunteer firefighters, roughly two-thirds are in the pension system, he said.
Providing a boost for financially strapped fire agencies is important, said Smythe, of the Freedom Hill fire district in Creek County.
All rural fire departments this year received $4,484 in operational costs from Oklahoma Forestry Services, she said. In the Freedom Hill district, which covers about 86 square miles, subscribers pay a $50 fee per year, she said.
The rest of the department's income comes from donations and fundraisers. One of the district's biannual bake sales, which is geared toward the start of deer season, generates about $700, Smythe said.
"If it's really cold, rainy and nasty, we can get upward of $1,000," she said. "I make the boys stand out in the middle of the road. The more miserable they look, the more money they get."
Freedom Hill comprises a staff of about 20 men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 69, Smythe said. As for equipment, it has an engine, two tankers that can carry 2,500 gallons of water apiece and a grass rig.
Thanks to an influx of donations following the wildfires - the district received a pair of $5,000 gifts - it was able to purchase a $12,000 grass rig to replace the one rendered inoperable.
"It wore them out," Smythe said. "Emotionally, it is incredibly fatiguing and depressing for them because we normally don't do this kind of job. We don't lose these kinds of structures. It was hard.
"But because of the generous public, those feelings have been curbed a little bit because they see they still have support."
Another rural fire department stretched thin by the Creek County wildfires was Silver City.
Assistant Chief Jason Bradley said he worked about nonstop for several days. Early on Aug. 5, cramping from dehydration had extended to his jaw.
"I couldn't talk," said Bradley, whose wife, Melondy, is a Silver City EMT/firefighter. "They thought I was having a heart attack at first."
He bounced back with the help of intravenous fluids. But his department continues to suffer from the aftermath.
The wildfires claimed a Silver City engine, and a brush truck recently underwent a major repair. Through a $4 surcharge added to Indian Electric Cooperative bills, the district gets about $748 per month from subscribers, Melondy Bradley said.
That amount, however, will decrease in the wake of the wildfires.
"A lot of homes in our district were destroyed," she said. "So we are no longer going to get that money now because there's not going to be electricity. A lot of departments are losing money that way, too."
The Olive Fire Department wore out about 10 tires in battling the wildfires, Fire Chief Tim Howard said. In a three-day period, the department's fuel costs were $1,800, he said.
"We have guys who spend their own money on stuff," Howard said. "We may not have enough money in our account at the time to pay for something."
Fire agreements the district sells to customers for $48 a year bring in about $500 a month, he said.
"We have an arts and craft show on the fifteenth," Howard said. "We're going to try to sell a few hamburgers and hot dogs and make a couple hundred bucks."
Competitive grants available in state
Services, a division of the
Oklahoma Department of
Agriculture, Food and Forestry,
has announced that
about $400,000 is available
to rural fire departments
of less than 10,000 in
population through a competitive
“This Rural Fire 80/20
Reimbursement Grant provides
to rural fire departments,”
Secretary of Agriculture
Jim Reese said in a prepared
can be used to purchase
firefighting or communications
equipment or build or
improve a fire station.”
This program is funded
by the Oklahoma Legislature
and authorized by Gov.
Mary Fallin. Applications
must be submitted through
one of Oklahoma’s Rural
Fire Coordinators by Oct. 1
and are available at www.
Successful grant recipients
will be notified on or
about Nov. 1. Following
official notification, fire
departments can make
eligible purchases and submit
receipts for 80 percent
“We want to encourage
rural fire departments to
apply for these grants to
improve their wildland firefighting
Forester George Geissler
said in a news release. “It
is especially important
for all fire departments to
review their radio systems
for compliance with new
FCC requirements which go
into effect in January 2013.
Ensuring rural fire departments’
radio capability will
be a priority for this year’s
For more information,
contact Rural Fire Coordinators
or OFS Rural Fire
Staff Forester Gary Williams
at 800-517-3673 or
Original Print Headline: Firefighting funds sought
Rhett Morgan 918-581-8395
Freedom Hill Fire Chief Kevin Smythe (left) stands with his son, Fire Captain Timothy Smythe, at the rural fire station near Mannford. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World
A Prue firefighter battles a blaze as fire nears homes in the area of Oklahoma 48 and West 31st Street in Mannford on Aug. 5. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World