Texoma is in the midst of a dangerous fire season. Dry conditions and powerful winds are keeping Texoma firefighters on high alert around the clock. The men and women who risk their lives to protect others face danger and challenges every day. But, fighting fires isn't always the biggest challenge.
On January 23, 2011 multiple agencies battled a massive grass fire in City View. The plume of smoke from the blaze was so massive it showed up on weather radar and prompted false alarms for other fires from miles away. The flames charred around 400 acres of land.
This is a scene familiar to Texoma firefighters. They work tirelessly to protect you, your family and your property. But, what if they weren't there to help? Texoma fire departments are facing crises that could result in some of them shutting down.
Nearly all departments in Texoma rely on volunteers and donations. Both are in short supply these days, leaving fire chiefs to wonder about the future. "We're okay at the moment," said Lake Arrowhead Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Hall, "but all it would take is one good fire and that could wipe out our entire savings right there."
Hall said his department has gotten lucky so far. Large donations from private contributors have helped him keep the doors open. But, said Hall, they can't count on those kinds of donations forever. "With the money we've got coming in," Hall said, "right now, it's not gonna be enough for us to keep the department going."
Hall said, if the department goes away, homeowners around Lake Arrowhead will have a tough time getting homeowner's insurance. And their rates would be outrageous. That's not to mention the danger of having to wait for neighboring departments to respond to fires.
While other Texoma departments are faring better financially, they are facing another critical shortage: manpower. Chief Randy Fulbright of the Iowa Park VFD said he currently has 13 firefighters on staff. "I could use 25 to 30," he said.
Burkburnett VFD Chief Rodney Ryalls said his department is facing one of its biggest manpower shortages in eight to 10 years. His rolls include 23 firefighters. His target is 35.
Both Fulbright and Ryalls said the down economy is making it tough to recruit new members. "Being called out at two in the morning," said Ryalls, "then having to get up and work a full day and then maybe a part-time job on top of that...it really makes it tough."
To make matters worse, Texoma is in the midst of a dangerous fire season. Wichita Falls Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Weske said the Texas Forestry Service is warning conditions now are similar to the ones that sparked a fire storm in 2009. In April of that year, fires raged across Texoma forcing evacuations.
Heavy rains early last summer allowed weeds and grass to grow tall. Now that growth is dry, brittle and highly flammable. While the Forestry Service has move additional resources into the area, those resources take time to deploy. "It's going to be a trying time, initially," said Ryalls, "because, once they hit us, it's kinda tough."
So struggling departments here in Texoma will have to look out for each other. Chief Fulbright said spreading resources thin makes for a dangerous situation. But, the fire chiefs all said they are up to the challenge.
"We have the best fire department in the state of Texas," said Asst. Chief Weske. "We're always ready to go."
"Those trucks are gonna roll," said Chief Fulbright, "it doesn't matter what it is. We'll get them there, we'll get them back."
Chief Hall said "you call 911, and we're on the way."
Tim Barnosky, Newschannel 6.
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