We’re blessed in Madison County not to have had massive forest fires like we’ve seen out west. But there’s certainly plenty of timber around here. And when things get really dry, like they have been lately, there’s the potential for a spark, a flame and a big-time disaster.
Talk to someone who’s seen flames rise up in the trees like a menacing, living thing, and you realize that Smokey the Bear ain’t just a furry friend for kids. No, he warns folks about some serious, potentially life-threatening stuff.
Thankfully, we have 11 volunteer fire departments in this county. Most folks don’t like the idea of waking from a dream and rushing to get dressed, so they can put a suit on and run into a stranger’s burning home at 3 a.m. Most folks don’t want to run away from the air conditioning and into the woods on a 100-degree day in full fire gear. Many folks would expect some good money for taking on such duties. But fortunately, there are those among us who don’t think like most folks. They volunteer for those tough jobs.
Rural fire departments are essentially mini-communities. And those communities find value in serving the public at large. They get a little public help, one mill of taxes per year, about $650,000 in tax dollars. But that money goes to department expenses, not salaries. Madison County gets a lot of fire service for very little money.
While citizens look to Madison County’s firemen when the blazes hit, those firemen need some help at times, too, especially when those fires spread in wooded areas. Madison County’s forestry unit has long assisted local fire departments with a fire break, a gap in vegetation that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a bushfire or wildfire. The Danielsville forestry office is pretty much in the center of the county. It is ideally situated to respond quickly to any area of the county.
According to Madison County 911 director David Camp, the Madison County forestry office responded to 142 brush/woods fires between Sept. 1, 2005, and Sept. 1, 2010.
It only takes one out of control fire to threaten valuable possessions and even lives. And I think it’s reasonable to assert that we’ve avoided more serious wildfires in this county in some of those 142 responses.
Of course, we live in a time of burning budgets. We’re trying to cut costs at every corner. And the state is slashing our local forestry office as it tries to deal with horrific revenue problems. It’s important to note that Madison County residents won’t be cut out of forestry assistance. They’ll just have to seek such help out of the county. That’s bad, but doable.
But emergency situations are different. It’s more than just an inconvenience. The state plans to move the Danielsville fire break equipment to the Elbert County unit. A forestry spokesperson acknowledged that the department’s response times will inevitably go up on fire calls in Madison County, but they still expect to respond within 45 minutes to any call in Madison County, which meets their own response guidelines. However, such guidelines are little comfort when a wildfire is breathing near your home. If you live in the Ila area, for instance, and you have a wild fire blazing, it’s going to be far preferable to have someone respond from Danielsville than Elberton. Think about that drive, how the additional minutes will surely matter to some of you in the future.
It sounds like a done deal. But perhaps not. There’s still plenty of budget wrangling ahead in coming months at the state level. There will be a new adminstration. It won’t be long before legislators convene again in Atlanta. Perhaps cuts can be made without shutting down the entire Danielsville operation. Perhaps equipment can be left at the county farm. Perhaps there’s some measure of compromise that can keep the county a little safer, while giving the state some needed cuts.
If this bothers you, make some noise. Call your legislators, call the state forestry commission, call the governor’s office. Write them letters. E-mail them. You never know. I think of that well-known bear and what he always said.
“Only you can prevent a forest fire.”
Or, perhaps, political ones.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.