By MOLLY WRIGHT
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan and other states across the Great Lakes region have allocated funds to local volunteer fire departments to fight wildfires and help meet the demand to expand fire protection.
The volunteer fire department is the dedicated first responder in many rural areas. These local departments play a crucial role in fire education and mitigation efforts.
There are over 26,000 rural and predominantly volunteer fire departments across the United States.
The Rural Fire Capacity program, also called Volunteer Fire Assistance, is awarded to states and funded equally by state and federal governments.
“The way it works is, each year the departments submit an application to the Department of Natural Resources as to what projects they would like to secure funding for, and then the applications get reviewed and prioritized, and then the funds get distributed accordingly,” said state Wildland Fire Supervisor Dan Laux.
State natural resources agencies give the funds to fire departments in rural communities with populations under 10,000 to purchase equipment, training materials and other resources.
“The goal is to give the rural communities a boost in securing some much-needed equipment by providing them a funding mechanism to make purchases of items that maybe they wouldn’t be able to make otherwise, and to help bolster their response capabilities,” Laux said.
The grants are designed to enable departments to create more fire-adapted communities and are not necessarily wildfire-specific.
“By allowing the fire department to purchase the equipment or gear, whatever it is that they find they have a need for, it goes towards supporting their suppression efforts. Not all of that is specific to wildland fire, but a good majority of it is,” he said.
“For example, a lot of the departments will purchase a slip-in tank unit which is basically a small pump, a small water tank, that they can put into the back of a pickup truck-size vehicle that allows them better access off-road,” Laux said.
The grants are part of the $2.4 billion awarded in 2021 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for wildland fire management, a figure that has increased by $58.8 million from 2020.
Michigan has received $394,940 for 87 departments, though the exact amount each department got is unavailable, according to the DNR’s 2021 Wildland Fire Report.
According to state officials, Wisconsin has received $917,341.71 in assistance for 285 departments, including the maximum $10,000 for 18 of them. Pennsylvania has received $762,414 for 122 departments, 18 of which received the full $12,500.
For states, the funding comes amid an upward trend of concerning statistics about wildfires.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the peak wildfire season has been occurring earlier, shifting from August to July as of 2002.
Laux said, “We noticed a little increase last season – it was probably a little busier of a season, but we are also noticing a little bit more of a longer length season.”
Additionally, wildfires are burning longer and reaching further. In the last 18 years, 10 have broken records in terms of acreage burned.
Those trends coincide with many of the warmest years on record.
Molly Wright reports for Great Lakes Echo.