Wildfires Decimating Budgets of Okla.’s Rural Fire Departments

January 6, 2006

Wildfires that have ravaged more than 350,000 acres across Oklahoma also are taking their toll on the budgets of rural fire departments.

Rural volunteer departments this year have received only about one-fourth of their annual grant money from the state, with a promise of the rest to come in June.

Strother volunteer Fire Chief Vernon Pickett used his personal credit card to buy gas during a fire near Seminole the other day, his wife, Gloria, said. The bill was more than $200 – one-third of the grant money the state sent.

“If it keeps up like it is,” she said, “we won’t have money for gas.”

State Finance Director Claudia San Pedro said she and other officials are making a plan with the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to get funds to the fire departments.

“We’ve got enough money in our coffers to provide them the cash,” she said.

San Pedro hopes to have the money to the agriculture department by the end of this week. The checks could be mailed as soon as the middle of January, a state finance spokesman said.

About 875 rural fire departments qualify for the annual operational grants, which are funded through the Legislature and handed out by the agriculture department.

Each department was paid about $600 in the fall, said Jack Carson, the agriculture department’s spokesman. The rest – about $2,000 – was to be paid at the end of the fiscal year, which is in June. In past years, all the money was paid in the summer, the beginning of the fiscal year.

The Legislature approved more than $2 million for rural firefighters, said Robin Maxey, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater. That’s about $500,000 more than the year before.

“Some might argue that we could have fronted the Forestry Division (of the agriculture department) to have these fire departments fully funded up front,” Maxey said. “But there are a lot of agencies that have to have special cash up front.”

He said health care, education and other causes received special cash priority last year when cash was low.

The sooner the problem can be sorted out, the better, said Paul Simpson, the rural fire coordinator for Creek, Hughes, Lincoln, Okfuskee, Pawnee, Payne, Pottawatomie and Seminole counties.

“A lot of fire departments are spending money out of their pockets,” he said.

Stories of volunteers running out of gas or losing equipment have trickled to the capitol.

“It’s a major problem,” Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo said, “and it was a major screwup not to do as we’ve done in the past and not prioritize that cash so they can be funded up front.”

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