Resource-Strapped Volunteers are on the Frontlines of Many Texas Wildfires

About three-fourths of all fire departments in Texas are run by volunteers. And as burn bans pile up—so do the challenges for many of these departments.

By Natalie Krebs, Texas Standard 

At eight o’clock on a Monday night at the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department, a five-ton brush truck goes up a hill in the grassy, muddy terrain behind the station.

Chief Sean Dixon is teaching about a dozen volunteer firefighters how to drive this thirty-year-old truck.

“If you feel like you’re going to go at it at too steep of an angle, back off the accelerator, get a better grip on it,” Dixon says.

Unlike those standard red fire engines, this vehicle can handle region’s tough, sandy terrain in order to reach wildfires. And Dixon says that’s important because wildland fires make up 80 percent of their call load.

He says the department actually has three of these heavy brush trucks, but one needs a new engine.

And Dixon says the third truck—a recent donation from a local company—requires the installation of pricey equipment like a $4,000 water pump to be fire-ready.

“What it’s going to cost to put it together and built and stuff like that, we’re looking at 10 or 20,000 dollars,” he says.

The West Odessa Fire Department has many used trucks and equipment with chipped paint and the occasional piece of duct tape. Mechanically-inclined firefighters do routine maintenance and repairs.

That’s because Dixon says the department operates on a yearly budget of only around $40,000—which mostly comes from Ector County. And everything in the fire industry is pricey.

“It’s like having a second wife. There ain’t nothing cheap about it,” says Dixon.

Funding for volunteer departments is scarce. Most get limited—if any—funding from local governments. The state’s grant programfor rural volunteer departments currently has requests for $200 million worth of equipment from 950 departments, but it only has $17 million a year to spend.

That leaves many departments relying on bake sales, gun raffles, and even knocking on doors to raise money.

“We’ve heard numerous stories where firefighters will take out money from their own personal billfold and wallet and put fuel in the truck,” State Firefighters and Fire Marshals Association of Texas President Chris Barron says.

Recent recruit Ruben Payne wears firefighting gear during a recent training session. (Natalie Krebs)

Barron says if money is the top issue for Texas’ volunteer fire departments, a close second is actually getting volunteers because the number of volunteer firefighters across the state is on the decline.

“In Texas, we have seen where firefighters are working multiple jobs to make ends meet,” Barron says. “They are participating more in their kids’ activities. And working longer hours, which means it takes away time from their volunteer work.”

Barron says putting out wildfires require a lot of time and work. They can last hours—and even days or weeks and burn through thousands of acres.

That’s one reason many firefighters don’t make it through the six-month probationary period, Dixon says.

“At first they show up. They’re gung-ho. They’re ready to do it. Then they see how much work it actually is,” Dixon says. “And there’s no compensation to it. It is what it says it is—volunteer firefighting.”

He says West Odessa has about two dozen firefighters on its roster and about half regularly show up for calls. So far this year, Dixon says they’ve had an average of more than 40 calls a week.

One of the newest members is Ruben Payen. He’s only been with the station for a couple of weeks. On the Fourth of July, Payen says they had at least two dozen calls.

“We weren’t at the station but maybe a minute at one point and we just kept going from run to run to run,” Payen says.

The National Volunteer Fire Council says calls to departments across the country have steadily increased every year. That’s because departments are increasingly responsible for non-fire instances such as minor medical emergencies and flooding.

On top of that, Odessa is experiencing a population boom. Lieutenant Clay Blount says he started volunteering because the city’s main department needs help.

“Because if we didn’t have this, the response time from the City of Odessa are 15 to 20 minutes,” Blount says. “Sometimes a half hour to 45 minutes if it’s on the west side of the county.”

Blount says he knows this because he worked as a paid firefighter for the city for five years. He recently quit to start a landscaping business. But he says he spends at least 20 hours a week volunteering at the West Odessa station.

And the city department is grateful for the help of the volunteers and their heavy brush trucks.

With the current drought conditions, it looks like it could continue to be a busy summer for departments across the state. That means volunteer firefighters like Dixon, Blount, and the rest of the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department will continue to be ready when station alarms calls them to action.

This is the station’s only functioning heavy brush truck. The station’s other two trucks need pricey repairs and modifications before they can fight fires. (Natalie Krebs)

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