Six Carbon County volunteer fire companies received a total of $22,305 to help guard against the threat of forest fires. The announcement was made by Wes Keller, forest fire specialist supervisor DCNR-Forestry at the Penn Forest Fire Control Station.

A record $666,553 was awarded to 172 volunteer Pennsylvania fire companies throughout the state serving rural areas and communities where forest and brush fires are common. The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978, as amended by the Forest Stewardship Act of 1990. The objectives of this program are to save lives and protect property in unprotected or inadequately protected rural areas.

The grants were given to the following Carbon County fire companies: Aquashicola Volunteer Fire Co., Aquashicola, $2,690; Bowmanstown Volunteer Fire Co., Bowmanstown, $750; Citizens' Fire Co. No. 1, Weatherly, $2,265; Diligent Fire Co. No. 3, Jim Thorpe, $5,600; Hauto Volunteer Fire Co., Nesquehoning, $5,500; and Tresckow Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1, Tresckow, $5,500.

"It's a grant program that's been going on for years," Keller explained. "The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act encourages fire companies to purchase fire equipment and/or safety equipment."

Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act grants are offered on a cost-share program. Financial assistance on any project during any fiscal year cannot exceed 50 percent of the actual expenditures, with a limit of $7,500 per grant. Because of the demand, fire companies can receive this grant once every five years. "There are so many fire companies in Pennsylvania and not a lot of money available," Keller noted. "Sometimes we luck out. This year we got six fire companies in Carbon County."

The Bureau of Forestry administers the program in Pennsylvania. The requests from the Carbon County volunteer fire companies come through DCNR-Forestry at the Penn Forest Fire Control Station. From there, they are funneled to Harrisburg where the applications are rated on a point system.

For instance, points are received if the request is to upgrade material received as federal excess property, like a pickup truck that is being converted into a fire vehicle, or if the request will increase protection on federal wildlands. The grants cover equipment purchased in 2010.

"Wildfire gear is different from gear used for fighting structural fires," Keller noted. He explained that because a firefighter can be working for up to 12 hours, far from a base, and in intense heat, personal protection equipment must be lightweight and portable, which makes it expensive and harder to source.

The grants have been used to provide wildland firefighters with specialized helmets with goggles, leather gloves, Nomex pants and shirts, and backpacks. The backpacks that Keller uses contain a canteen of water, MRE packets of food, medical gear, a compass, and a fire shelter.

"Fire companies ask me for suggestions, like what type of helmets to buy," Keller said. "If it wasn't for this program, I know a lot of firefighters would be out there in T-shirts and regular pants and not safety boots and safety equipment."

Keller said that 2010 was a low year for wildfires in Carbon County.

"I believe we had less than 30 fires," he said. "Usually, we are at 60 for the year. During the 1986/87 seasons, things were really bad with over 200 fires. Many were arsons and there was a drought.

Since then, forest fires have been generally decreasing. Keller has instituted an arson prevention program to focus on kids who play with fire. But he feels his biggest success has been the result of the FireWise program, which encourages private community developments to get rid of overhanging brush and excess fuel in the forest.

In contrast, he noted that the megafires out west have been fueled by decades of fallen trees on the forest floor that had not been allowed to burn. Pennsylvania firefighters have helped to manage the western wildfires.

The forest service and the volunteer fire companies work "hand-in-hand," Keller said.

"If it weren't for the volunteer firefighters in Carbon County, half the wildfires we get wouldn't be suppressed. I depend on the volunteer fire companies for every fire. We can't do it ourselves. So hopefully, these grants will help them."