© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Drought-fueled wildfires are exhausting volunteer firefighters across the Plains and Midwest

Photo provided by Harrison County Sheriff’s Office
A large fire broke out near Mondamin, Iowa, in late October. It took 12 volunteer fire departments nearly six hours to extinguish the fire. “I'm sure you could go and talk to any fire department around in the rural setting and everyone's always looking for volunteers,” said volunteer firefighter Derek Rothe.

Bone-dry and windy conditions across the Midwest and Great Plains are only making it easier for wildfires to spark. The worsening drought factors mount pressure on volunteer firefighters that respond when wildfires occur.

Derek Rothe got a sinking feeling on a recent Sunday afternoon when his pager wouldn’t stop ringing. The volunteer firefighter was being called to help extinguish a wildfire that broke out several towns away from his own southwest Iowa community.

“When you hear multiple towns getting called out for the same call, at that point you're assuming the worst,” he said. “When they start calling further towns out for just water, that’s when you know that it’s a large fire.”

Twelve community fire departments were ultimately able to suppress the fire near Mondamin, Iowa, with the help of local farmers and emergency management agencies, but not before it burned 3,000 acres. The combination of the dry, harvested soybean field and strong wind gusts helped fuel the flames and spread them quickly.

Wildfires aren’t unusual this time of year, but Rothe said he’s noticed both the departments he volunteers for have already responded to more field fires this season than in previous years.

“And we still have a little bit to go this season,” he said.

Severe drought conditions are helping fuel wildfires throughout the western U.S., with more than 7 million acres burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Parts of Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska have recently seen wildfires hit small-town communities and burn acres of farmland and homes, and the threat is expected to continue.

“Right now, because of the dry fall weather and the drought conditions that are going on, our wildfire risk and danger has really been ramped up,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

Volunteer firefighters are often on the frontline of putting out wildfires, as they make up nearly 70% of fire departments, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Chip Redmond, a volunteer fire captain in Manhattan, Kansas, and a meteorologist with Kansas Mesonet, said he noticed volunteer firefighters across the state becoming exhausted after last spring’s wildfire season.

“I’ve talked to several firefighters that have thrown in the towel,” Redmond said. “You have to get that enjoyment of being an aide to your community. If you don't get that anymore because you think it's too dangerous, then you're just putting yourself at risk.”

While call volume has tripled since 1984, the National Fire Council shows a 17% drop in the number of volunteer firefighters since that time. That can put more pressure on the volunteer firefighters who remain.

On top of working as a full-time fertilizer consultant in western Iowa, Rothe also volunteers as a firefighter and emergency medical technician at two rural fire departments in his area. He said he’s personally felt the toll it can take.

Photo provided by Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training
Oklahoma State University's Fire Service Training program works to train career and volunteer firefighters across the state. Types of training include wildland firefighting, emergency medical services and fire rescue. "We try to teach as much as we can when there's not wildland fire probability so we can be safe as possible," said Rodney Foster, the program's assistant director.

“If you go and make every call, you're gonna burn yourself out of how many hours that you can physically handle going and putting towards this,” he said.

Rothe notes that most volunteers are getting older and retiring, which makes it a priority for departments to recruit young volunteers.

“If you don't get new people in then you're gonna start seeing departments kind of crumble from within,” Rothe said. “You always hope that there's going to be someone that steps up to the plate to kind of take over, but it's not a guarantee, which is very unfortunate.”

Finding ways to recruit young people to volunteer at their local fire station is something Rodney Foster, an assistant director for Oklahoma State University’s Fire Service Training, said many fire departments are wondering how to do.

“If a fire station wants to recruit somebody, you need to give them the tools they need,” he said. “You teach them how to do it and then you support them.”

He said it’s important to emphasize to students the time commitment it takes to serve as a volunteer or career firefighter, but also the impact they can have on their community.

Despite the challenges that come with being a volunteer firefighter, Rothe said he wouldn’t give up the work.

“Volunteering is my way of giving back to the community,” he said. “I like the sense that I can take pride in being recognized for assisting someone when they needed it the most.”

Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Xcaret on Twitter @Xcaret_News.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

I cover agriculture and rural communities for Harvest Public Media, and I’m based at Oklahoma’s NPR member station, KOSU in Oklahoma City.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.