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A Burning Need

April 5, 2012, 10:00 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

A Burning Need

The hot and dry spring has sparked an early start to fire season in South Dakota.

Whether those fires are in the east or burning up the forest in the Black Hills, it's already shaping up to be a busy time for firefighters. And Minnehaha County is looking for more volunteers to help in the fight.

When a fire starts, the first crews on the scene aren't getting paid to put out the flames; they're volunteering their time to protect their community.

"If you didn't have the volunteer fire department, who would provide the fire service?" Lyons Volunteer Firefighter Paul Siemonsma said.

Volunteer firefighters are the frontline of public safety in South Dakota, especially in Minnehaha County where a growing population is placing even more demands on the small departments.

"Ten years ago when I joined the fire department, we went to 40 calls that year. This last year we went on 125," Crooks Fire Chief Mike Harstad said.

Harstad is also President of the Minnehaha County Fire Chiefs’ Association, which is increasing its efforts to recruit more volunteers.

Harstad says volunteer fire departments aren't just responding to fires, they're also going to highway crashes and medical emergencies.

"Our call volumes increase every year. We go to more calls than we ever have before and that takes a toll on people," Harstad said.

Another factor that will likely take a toll are the prairie fires that put a strain on the small departments because they take a lot of time and resources to control.

"Couple of days ago, we just had a 100-acre grass fire.  And the need for people is just amazing because the manpower just wasn't there," Siemonsma said.

Fires in the Black Hills also put pressure on crews in Minnehaha County who head west to help.

"We've already had a couple of our crews go out West River and respond in the Black Hills to assist.  And this isn't even fire season yet for us," Harstad said.

That's why the Minnehaha County Fire Chiefs’ Association is currently using a $180,000 grant from FEMA to recruit and keep volunteer firefighters over the next two years. They've already recruited 40 new firefighters in the past four months, and they are holding training sessions right now in Brandon.

"You can see that it's actually helping, that we're getting new numbers and people actually coming in," Siemonsma said.

The group is training men or women who want to join their local fire department for free. EMT courses are also offered to citizens who want to volunteer.

"Whether it's a want to volunteer for your community, whether it's a tradition in your family, whether it's an opportunity just to meet more people in your community, there are a million reasons for why you want to volunteer," Harstad said.

"If Lyons had a big fire, who else would come in? You'd have to wait for Sioux Falls and you're talking 25 to 30 minutes later.  You'd show up and the house would already be gone. So, the need for volunteers is a tremendous need, tremendous need," Siemonsma said.

It's a tremendous need to protect the public.

Click here for a link to the Minnehaha County Fire Chiefs' Association.

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