AUSTIN (KXAN) — Over the last two months, Hill Country families have relied on hundreds of firefighters to help save their homes and put out several large wildfires.
When flames started spreading across parts of Burnet, Blanco and Llano Counties it was volunteers on the front lines first.
“We’ve pretty much done all the rehab and got our equipment back in working order,” said Chief Jason Hackworth with the Llano Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s tough on everything and everybody.”
Chief Hackworth says their roster stays full with 30 dedicated firefighters. But some volunteer fire chiefs have not always been so lucky.
“Over the years, you recruit ten and you keep one for a year or two,” said Chief Mark Padier with Chisholm Trail Fire Rescue.
His Emergency Services District in Dale covers 110 square miles of Caldwell and Hays Counties. Padier says tax dollars his department receives do not pay for personnel. For now, the money coming in only covers equipment, trucks, and training.
“It’s difficult to get somebody out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning to go to a pin-in or a house fire or water rescue that has to be at work at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Chief Padier.
Chris Barron, Executive Director of the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas says over the last decade the United States has lost about 80,000 volunteer firefighters. He’s hopeful a new $1.4 million federal grant will change the downward trend in Texas.
Barron says the grant will do four things:
- Hire a full-time program administrator to provide outreach to every VFD in Texas
- Design an app allowing VFD’s to enter volunteer numbers each month, and explain why people are leaving so the state can start tracking it
- Cover the cost of billboards and banners for VFD’s to advertise
- Provide a media toolkit with tips on running a website and social media pages
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 70-percent of the 1500 registered fire departments in Texas are staffed by volunteers.
Chiefs Padier and Hackworth, who have both been fighting fires for free for more than 20 years, hope the extra money will attract more volunteers who will stick with it as long as they have.