News & Media

Relief fund aids fire crews

Donations help volunteers with expenses
Reported by: Kiah Collier /San Angelo Standard Times

Tuesday, May 24 2011

relief fund aids fire crews 310x218 Relief fund aids fire crews

AUSTIN — State elected officials — including San Angelo’s own state Rep. Drew Darby — are urging Texans to contribute to a new relief fund created to help volunteer fire departments purchase much needed equipment in the wake of the devastating wildfire season.

At a news conference Tuesday morning at the Capitol, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — flanked by several West Texas state lawmakers whose districts have been affected by the fires — emphasized the financial drain of what he said has been “one of the worst wildfire seasons on record” and implored Texans to donate to the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund set up by the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.

Staples applauded the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas for its $100,000 donation to the fund — the first significant contribution — but said it pales in comparison to the existing financial need.

“Although it is a significant contribution, it is pennies compared to the need out there, the need that is so great to help these volunteer firefighters to carry out their mission,” Staples said. “But all Texans have the opportunity to give to this relief fund.”

The state has set up its own account to receive donations to help fund firefighting costs, which have grown to almost $102 million statewide, according to the most recent estimates from the Texas Forest Service.

In remarks made at the news conference, state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, a Republican from Vernon, said local volunteer fire departments are out of money.

“They have been fueling up their trucks with their own money so any contribution will be greatly appreciated, because these folks aren’t going to quit, they are going to be ready for the next fire,” he said.

The news conference came a day after budget negotiators finalized a state spending plan that cuts funding to the Texas Forest Service, the lead agency in charge of fighting wildfires, by one-third over the next two years. The cut includes an almost 70 percent reduction in funding to the agency’s two main grant assistance programs that help volunteer fire departments buy equipment, including fire trucks.

The agency’s overall funding will be reduced in 2012-13 from $109 million to about $75 million. Money available for grants will be reduced by about 67 percent from $48.4 million to $15.8 million, said Robby DeWitt, associate director of the agency’s finance department.

DeWitt said the Legislature doubled funding to the grant program, which began in 2002, for the first time during the 2009 legislative session because of the increased need and the program’s overall success. Until then, he said the Legislature had provided $15 million a year in funding to the program.

“The program was so successful in achieving its intended purpose, I believe that had a lot to do with why the Legislature chose to increase it, and there’s a significant need with volunteer fire departments,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said the cut will force the agency to stop giving grants to purchase fire trucks, but that they will still provide grant funding for less expensive firefighting gear. He said agency has provided $194 million in grants and other financial assistance to the state’s volunteer fire departments over the past decade.

“There’s still a significant amount of help, it’s just that for the next biennium we won’t be able to award grants on large equipment,” he said.

DeWitt said they are hopeful that the grant funding will be restored during the next legislative session as state coffers grow with the recovering economy.

“You have to recognize that for the last 10 years, we have been awarding grants for large equipment, so a lot of progress has been made to assist volunteer fire departments, and we are hopeful that in the next biennium that things will have improved enough that we can restore that grant funding,” he said.

As it works to cut its own spending, the federal government recently denied Texas’ request for a federal disaster declaration made in response to the wildfires, which have collectively burned almost 2.6 million acres. A declaration would make the state eligible for more federal assistance.

“These funds have been slow to nonexistent in coming,” said Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls, at the news conference.

Tom Green County Treasurer Dianna Spieker said the county will still be eligible for up to 75 percent reimbursement for expenses incurred fighting its fires. Local volunteer fire departments have until Monday to report expenses to the county, she said.

Spieker said there is some concern that the overall reimbursement percentage may be smaller because of the grim budget situation facing all levels of government, but that the county will likely have to wait years to receive the reimbursements anyway.

“That is a concern that they will be more stringent, but on the flip side of it, I’m not sure if they’re going to be more stringent because of lack of funding or if this is just going to be the normal due process for them,” she said. ” They tell us that on average it takes two to three years to get any money back from the federal government on these kinds of grants.”

Spieker said the county has collected more than $19,000 in local donations to assist about a dozen volunteer fire departments in the area.

Wildfires wiped out VFD funding

State launches online fundraiser for firefighters
Reported by: Erin Cargile/KXAN News

Tuesday, May 24 2011

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) – When Matt Simkin isn’t supervising a construction job, he volunteers his time with the South Hays Fire Department in San Marcos. The department covers about 180 square miles in Southern Hays County.

“Really, it’s just a matter of enjoying a challenge and enjoying serving the community,” said Simkin.

In April, he was one of four South Hays firefighters who drove a truck to West Texas to help fight wildfires near Fort Davis. Their main job was helping small, local departments protect homes and buildings during one of the worst Texas wildfire seasons in memory.

“Pretty much everything where we were was real rural and all the local departments were pretty much all volunteer,” said Simkin.

That means thousands of volunteer firefighters put their paying jobs on hold to fight the fires for free. Many lost equipment and entire fire trucks in the process, and their small department budgets are long gone.

“Literally, the last 30 days of the fire fighting the firefighters were filling up their own fire trucks on their own credit card[s] to have enough fuel to keep working,” said state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, during a news conference Tuesday. He was one of several state lawmakers whose districts were hit the hardest. Traditional firefighter fundraisers would not help restore what was lost, they said.

“In most cases, they make their expenses off of chili suppers and hot dog feeds and bingo games,” said Hardcastle.

With the federal government refusing to pitch in, the state decided to launch a donation website. Anyone is invited to give back to the firefighters who helped in the past, and those who will help in the future.

“A lot of people see us drive by with the lights on making noise, but they don’t really know what we do or see the inner workings of the entire system and how the majority of the firefighters in Texas are volunteer,” said Simkin. “To have a place where people actually know we need the resources and a place where they can send the resources is going to make a big difference.”

The fund will specifically help pay for fire retardant clothing for volunteer firefighters. The Independent Insurance Agents of Texas kicked off the donation drive with a gift of more than $100,000.

To donate click here.

Texas Wildfire Relief Fund launches

Reported by: Jessica Vess/KVUE News
Tuesday, May 24 2011

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Texas firefighters are getting some financial support in one of the most active wildfire seasons in state history. On Tuesday, state lawmakers launched a non-profit called the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund.

Most of the state is protected by volunteer firefighters — about 77 percent. The problem is, they do not always have the gear they need.

“If they (volunteer firefighters) are out on top of a truck or fighting fire in no gear whatsoever, it’s very crucial. They have no protection,” said Chris Barron, director of the Firemen’s & Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas.

Donations to the relief fund will go to purchase materials called wildfire PPE, which stands for personal protection equipment. The lightweight clothing can withstand heat and falling embers.

“Cotton burns real easily, this stuff (PPE) you can put embers on it. It’s not going to burn like a regular cotton T-shirt or cotton pants,” said Barron.

However, the clothing is expensive. Each jacket and pant set costs $300 to $400 at its most basic form.

“Generally this falls second nature because it is more expensive and firefighters have to put fuel in the trucks and have to respond to calls. So this kind of takes a back seat in requests,” said Barron.

About 86 percent of volunteer firefighters already use their own money to buy equipment and supplies for their departments. With wildfires raging statewide it is costing them even more and lawmakers say FEMA funds are slow to non-existent.

The non-profit received a $100,000 donation from the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas Tuesday morning. As more funds come in, more equipment will go out.

Click here to donate to the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund.

Fund set up to help volunteer firefighters in Texas

Reported by: Ron Oliveira/KEYE TV News
Tuesday, May 24 2011

fund set up to help volunteer firefighters in texas 2 Fund set up to help volunteer firefighters in Texas

Despite a few Spring storms, the state of Texas remains in a serious drought. And with summer just ahead the fire danger has our first responders very worried, especially our volunteer firefighters.

Dry conditions throughout Texas have sparked monstrous wildfires this year. Since January, fire has burned more than two and a half million acres and destroyed over a thousand structures in the state.

And there battling the flames and encountering the danger are our firefighters, most of them volunteers. Over 77 per cent of fire departments in Texas are made up of volunteers.

Texas volunteer firefighters were recognized today at the State Capitol by Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and other elected officials. Staples said, “We know in any given day and any given crisis that these first responders, our volunteer firefighters are there up front and most times, the first ones on the scene and we thank you for your efforts.”

According to Staples, of the fourteen hundred volunteer fire departments in Texas, 86 percent of the firefighters use their own money to buy the equipment and supplies they need to do their jobs.

Their efforts are being applauded by state lawmakers, including State Representative Pete Gallego of Alpine. 800 thousand acres in his home area have been charred by wildfires. Gallego says, “These volunteers never know when they’re going to be called. And they put their lives aside for everybody else. They go on about the business of fighting fires. If any of you have ever been to a scene…the sweat and the grime…and the worry, not to mention the danger, is pretty incredible.”

But the volunteers need help so Commissioner Staples announced the formation of the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund, an effort to raise money and awareness about the ongoing crisis facing first responders battling wildfires in Texas.

The Independent Insurance Agents of Texas made an initial donation of 100 thousand dollars to the fund.