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Record-setting wildfire season, pandemic putting strain on volunteer fire stations

Many volunteer fire stations rely on tax dollars and fundraising.

LOVELAND, Colo. — Volunteer firefighters are an integral part of the system fighting the wildfires in Colorado – but many are low on funds and volunteers thanks to a record-setting wildfire season during a pandemic.  

The Loveland Fire Rescue Authority has two volunteer stations within its jurisdiction. Those stations, however, are in a tight spot because of COVID-19 restrictions.

"This is not their main job," Loveland Fire Chief Mark Miller said of the volunteer staff. "They're leaving their job of what they would typically do to make a living.”  

Poudre Fire Authority also has two volunteer fire stations within its jurisdiction, staffed by students, Colorado State University professors and entrepreneurs, among others. Both stations have been involved in the Cameron Peak Fire.

RELATED: Cameron Peak Fire now more than 206,000 acres

"[These are] very intelligent people who have taken wildfires very seriously," Poudre Fire Chief Tom DeMint said. 

Both chiefs said volunteer firefighters have played an integral part in battling the Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County and wildfires in general.

The volunteer stations are typically in areas where the volunteers live and usually have a lower call volume – until a fire like Cameron Peak meets them at their doorstep.

It means many times these volunteers are working to contain the fire while protecting their own homes and neighbors.

"In this particular fire it so happens we have several volunteers who live in that area and couple career firefighters as well," Miller said. 

RELATED: Calwood Fire forces Red Cross volunteer since 1974 to evacuate his Boulder home

The Four Mile Fire Protection District, a mostly-volunteer based agency that serves rural communities in a high-risk wildland-urban interface, also has firefighters on the frontlines of the Cameron Peak Fire.

The district, though, relies on tax dollars fundraising. 

COVID-19 took a significant bite out of its budget, and in a record-breaking wildfire season, the district has been deploying more firefighters compared to last year.  

"Being hurt on the fundraising side and having more expenses," said Four Mile Fire Chief Jay Teague, "it's a double-bone crusher for fire departments."

Teague said they are continuing to find COVID-safe ways to fundraise, including working with the local health department. So far this year he said they've lost around half their typical fundraising amount. Fundraising can make up anywhere from 10-25% of the budget.

"Some of my mutual aid agencies have suffered quite a bit," he added.

While it's not mandatory, Teague said some employers pay their workers while they volunteer on the frontlines. But this year, it’s different for some businesses.

RELATED: Cameron Peak Fire now more than 206,000 acres; Red Flag Warning in effect

“With COVID right now, especially our small businesses suffering they are not able to do that," Teague said. "That’s actually impacted our manpower on these larger incidents.”

Meanwhile, Teague said they’ve dipped into reserves for larger ticket items.

Volunteer fire stations can fall under the umbrella and budgets of larger fire departments. Some though are on their own. 

Teague said he's heard from a lot of people asking to help volunteer, which is great in the long run. However, training does take time.

The Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District said it has been hearing from community members reaching out directly asking how they can help support the district.

RELATED: Here's a look at all the wildfires burning in Colorado right now

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