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Fighting fire: Volunteer crews in county struggle to find enough funds

With a burn ban in full effect and the cost of fuel, volunteer fire departments are having to scrape together resources to survive as fires have blackened several thousands acres across the state.

Within the past seven days, the Texas Forest Service reports it has responded to 103 fires over 5,541 acres.

In Taylor County, volunteer fire departments say they constantly have to raise funds with bake sales, fish frys and barbecues to survive financially.

But wildfires are not the only calls the departments receive.

On a daily basis, VFDs respond to medical calls, structure fire calls, hazardous materials situations and motor vehicle accidents.

Volunteer firefighters from the Elm Creek Citizens Association, Buffalo Gap and View worked until early Sunday to put out a wind turbine blaze, which fire officials said sparked a grass fire in the Callahan Divide Wind Energy Center.

The fire was the second turbine blaze in the area, located 12 miles southwest of Abilene, that posed risks when the wind-powered electrical generator scattered debris in the area.

More than ever, volunteer fire crews in the area are feeling the money pinch. Out of 12 volunteer fire departments in Taylor County, two receive at least some city funding. The remaining 10 have to find ways to fend for themselves.

The Merkel Fire Department is considered one of the lucky departments that receives some funding from the city of Merkel.

The Tye Fire Department operates 100 percent by city funds.

“The state doesn’t provide any funding. They sometimes give you a grant to purchase equipment with,” said Merkel Fire Chief Steve Cochran, who operates with a $72,000 budget, nine firetrucks and the support of 18 volunteer firefighters.

“The state doesn’t provide any operating funds,” he said. “You can’t compare this season to any other season, with the high cost of fuel and the drought. On average, just off the top of my head, it takes $50 to $100 to fuel up one of our trucks.”

ECCA Fire Chief Gary Young said his department has been hurting financially.

Since 2008 the ECCA department has received $60,000 to fund a new firetruck from NextEra Energy, the company that owns the two turbines that sparked, but that money doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the department’s money woes, Young said.

The rest of the money comes from donations from residents, he said.

Two of his 1967 firetrucks are in need of repair, Young said, and with the constant wear and tear of their vehicles, coupled with fuel costs, his 20 firefighters are struggling to make it.

“Everything adds up,” he said. “It’s hard to survive. We have to figure out ways on how to do it on our own.”