Forest Service awards grants to rural fire departments

Providing financial assistance to fire departments in rural areas and rural communities is crucial to suppressing Nebraska's wildland fires. This year the Nebraska Forest Service, through funding from the U.S. Forest Service, is providing $187,112 in federal financial assistance for 91 Nebraska community projects through the Volunteer Fire Assistance Program.

"Nebraska's rural firefighting resources are often the first line of defense in meeting expanded protection needs for wildland-urban interface fires," said Don Westover, wildland fire protection program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service. "Of 490 local fire departments in Nebraska, 97 percent are volunteer. These departments provide, at no cost, wildfire and emergency protection service to 56 percent of the population and more than 99 percent of the state's land area."

The VFA program allows the NFS to cost-share up to 50 percent of the costs of firefighting equipment with Nebraska fire districts. Commonly purchased items are protective clothing, communications equipment, water tanks, breathing apparatus, safety equipment, fire prevention materials and firefighter training. Large items such as fire trucks, fire stations and town sirens do not qualify.

Westover said grant requests for protective clothing are given preference.

"Really, that's our focus every year," Westover said. "For us, there's nothing more important than providing protection to firefighters."

Working with the U.S. Forest Service, the Nebraska Forest Service has provided the grants to departments statewide for more than 40 years. Westover said the program has, in the last 10 years, awarded an average of about $250,000 each year.

The need for rural firefighting equipment is greater than the financial assistance made available through the federal program. Rural fire departments submitted 142 project applications requesting more than $983,000, leaving more than a $795,000 shortfall.

The Nebraska Forest Service is an affiliate of the University of Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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