Government

Eastern Iowa fire departments get funds to fight wildfires

18,000 acres charred in Iowa in past two years: DNR

Cedar Rapids and Ely firefighters battle a large grass fire in 2012 along Interstate 380 near Wright Brothers Boulevard SW in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids and Ely firefighters battle a large grass fire in 2012 along Interstate 380 near Wright Brothers Boulevard SW in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Three dozen Eastern Iowa fire departments have been awarded a total of nearly $85,000 to help fight wildfires.

Iowa has not had the sorts of wildfires associated with the ones that ravaged parts of California this year. But the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports the state seen more than 900 wildfires damage nearly 18,000 acres during the past two years.

While reporting is spotty, Gail Kantak, wildland fire supervisor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said 536 wildfires were reported in Iowa in 2017 — predominantly caused by debris burning and equipment.

The fires affected 10,056 acres, she said.

This year, the DNR has received reports of 381 fires, predominantly caused by debris burning, affecting 7,122 acres.

To aid rural fire departments, the DNR, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, has awarded $234,459 in 50 percent cost-sharing grants to 100 of Iowa’s rural fire departments.

In Eastern Iowa, the grants ranged from $480 for the Anamosa Fire Department to $3,500 for 11 departments in Allamakee, Benton, Clayton, Delaware, Iowa, Keokuk, Washington and Winneshiek counties.

The grants offer funding assistance for wildfire suppression equipment, personal protective equipment and communications equipment.

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Some of that equipment differs from the gear fire departments use to fight other structure fires, Kantak said.

“Wildland personal protective gear is lighter weight and less cumbersome, built for protection in an open environment and ease of mobility,” she said. “Tools to monitor the changing weather patterns are important.”

Hand tools used to fight wildlife fires mostly are built for smothering, blowing and digging, Kantak said.

“Wildland fire suppression involves fighting fire with fire and with minimal water,” she said.

According to the DNR, more than 60 percent of Iowa’s population lives in urban communities. Many urban centers have expanded into traditionally natural areas.

This trend has created an extremely complex landscape, known as wildland/urban interface, and a new set of conditions — houses and businesses built amid wooded or wildland areas.

By populating natural areas, a wildland fire now can reach beyond its natural fuels such as trees, brush, and grass to homes, businesses and human endangerment.

So fire departments have to adapt to fighting fires in the wildland/urban interface.

It may be much more difficult, if not impossible, for a fire department to access a house soon enough to save it from a high-intensity wildfire, Kantak said.

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The Volunteer Fire Assistance program was authorized by the 1990 farm bill to provide financial, technical and other assistance through state forestry agencies to organize, equip and train small, local fire departments in rural communities with populations of fewer than 10,000 to prevent and suppress rural fires, Kantak said.

The program contributes to healthy forests, forest stewardship and sustainable economic development. VFA dollars also may be used to fund multi-community/fire department projects such as mutual-aid communications networks.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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