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Enforcement of federal agreement to hit rural fire departments hard

July 5, 2014 Tulsa World: Enforcement of federal agreement to hit rural fire departments hard. An agreement between two federal agencies will hamstring the ability of rural fire departments to fight wilderness blazes, area and state officials say.

The pact between the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency stops making available excess DOD vehicles to those rural districts.

Through a pair of longstanding federal excess property programs — Federal Excess Personal Property and Firefighter Property program — Oklahoma Forestry Services has been able to assist rural fire departments by providing no-cost military trucks that are then, through its Rural Fire Assistance Program, remanufactured into fire engines and water tankers designed for wilderness use.

Without access to the vehicles and other equipment, many rural fire departments will find it difficult to operate, as commercial trucks are cost-prohibitive for most. Currently, a total of 8,812 vehicle and pieces of equipment, valued at over $150 million, are being used by Oklahoma’s rural fire departments.

The decision by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Command to stop providing the vehicles is based on an old agreement between the Defense Department and EPA that is targeted at reducing emissions. Under the agreement, vehicles not meeting EPA emission standards would be destroyed instead of sold. It is unclear why the agreement is being enforced at this time.

“This action will ultimately result in increased exposure of communities to loss of life and property associated with wildfire, as well as increased fire suppression costs,” George Geissler, state forester and director of Oklahoma Forestry Services, said in a prepared statement. “The greenhouse gas emissions associated with the vehicles are marginal at best compared to emissions of an uncontrolled wildfire.”

Local fire departments are the first to respond to most wildfires. In many states, including Oklahoma, local departments are first on the scene for more than 75 percent of all wildfires. Fast initial response protects lives, property and reduces fire-suppression costs for local, state and federal entities.

Oklahoma Forestry Services is working with state and federal officials, the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA Forest Service to gather more information and seek a long-term solution to resolve the issue and make this equipment available.

“This affects every department around us, from Turley to Sperry to even Skiatook,” Paul Reeves, chief of the Black Dog Volunteer Fire Department in Osage County, said in a telephone interview. “We all have tankers we’ve put together, along with wildland trucks.”

Reeves said his department has two Defense Department trucks. But since 1989, “I bet we’ve had 15 of them that have gone through the cycle,” he said. “… With a $23,000 budget, we can’t afford to go out and buy a new truck. This is just another way that the government’s wasting money because, apparently, they are going to destroy these trucks. The trucks we have have less than 20,000 miles on them and they are less than 10 years old.”

Jim Massey is chief of the Country Corner fire protection district in Sperry.

“Our department, we can absorb the blow without much of a hit,” he said in a phone interview. “But there are other departments, this is their lifeline. They will not be able to exist. There are times in our development that we would be in the same situation.

“We’ve moved to the point where we’re not reliant solely upon forestry trucks. Other departments, that’s all they have.”

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