|Updated: 8/21/2012 8:59 am
||Published: 8/20/2012 4:23 pm
Just two weeks after wildfires blackened thousands of acres in Creek County, county commissioners took steps to help volunteer firefighters whose resources were severely strained if not depleted.
The commission agreed to put a one-third cent sales tax increase on the November ballot for voters to decide.
Like all of Creek County's volunteer fire departments, the Silver City Volunteer Fire Department is terribly under-funded. It doesn't have enough equipment, and the equipment it does have is a bunch of old, unreliable hand-me-downs from the Oklahoma Forestry Department or other regional fire departments.
During the recent wildfires, volunteer firefighters had to make tough decisions on how to use the limited funds they get. For instance, if they had $500 to use they had to decide between filling up their trucks with diesel to get to the fires, or replacing parts to make sure the trucks work once they get to the fires.
"It's catastrophic," Jason Bradley, Silver City Volunteer Fire Dept. Assistant Chief, said. "It's like nothing you've ever seen. It's trying to use older equipment to fight things that are outrageous."
"[It's difficult] trying to get enough trucks out there when you only have three working."
Bradley said battling the wildfires was like trying to fight a heavyweight champion with his hands tied behind his back.
"We went to suppress it with our engine, and our engine went down right in the middle of it and shut the pump off," Bradley said.
Bradley said his crews spent almost as much time trying to get the old equipment operational as they spent actually fighting the fires.
"Operational is it sprays water," he said. "The hose reel may not work, or this may not work, but it's operational. It will spray water."
With a yearly budget barely reaching $20,000, even personal safety equipment isn't always so safe.
"You're going out there, and you've got bunk gear and stuff that's got holes in it."
Bradley said the sales tax increase is long overdue.
"They've actually addressed it before and it kind of got pushed to the side because it wasn't a need. Well, it took a catastrophic event to get this done."
Creek County District One Commissioner Newt Stephens said he hasn't heard one peep of opposition to the sales tax increase.
"I've seen them (sic) guys come in and they'd work on this all night long, and get right back out there the next day," Stephens said. "And they need the equipment. The need is definitely there."
Bradley said he knows nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but the sales tax increase would be a game changer, ensuring future fires can't devastate the community as much as the ones this summer did.
"It's going to be a lot better, because the fact is we'll have equipment that's going to get us there," Bradley said.
When asked if the improved equipment will allow his department to save more homes in future wildfires, Bradley said it definitely would.
If voters approve the sales tax increase in November, the increase would be permanent and is expected to bring in a little less than $2 million a year.
Half of that money would be divided among the 20 fire districts in Creek County based on each department's needs each year. The other half would fund road and bridge repairs that are not currently funded by the state.