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If fire levy fails: costly insurance, fewer companies

Firefighting in Hampshire County is done by volunteers, supported by taxpayers through a fire levy for more than 30 years. The levy is up for a vote again this fall.

What would happen if it fails to pass? Fire departments would begin to close, fire chiefs predict, beginning with the smallest — the ones that lack local businesses to turn to for support, and sit far off main routes where fundraising is difficult.

“Bankrupt,” says Capon Springs Fire Chief Gerald Brill, when asked what failure of the levy would mean.

Levels Fire Chief Ronald Watson’s company is threatened too. He points out homeowners and businesses will feel the pain too, in the form of “extraordinary” increases in fire insurance rates, which are based on the distance to the nearest fire station.

Fire departments depend on levy funds to help pay the bills — though they never actually see the money. The funds remain in the county clerk’s office, to which bills are submitted that must be approved by the county clerk as legitimate expenses before being paid.

A state surcharge on fire and casualty insurance policies provides some additional income to volunteer fire departments, similarly restricted in use. An annual audit assures this money also is properly spent.

The departments supplement these sources of income with their own fund-raising, though this year such activities have been curtailed or shut down entirely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Firefighting is expensive, and the money does not go far. Chief Watson complains that “anything with fire or EMS attached to it, it’s double or triple the cost. Everything has to be up to national standards.”

The volunteers must meet the same standards as paid firefighters in wealthier government-funded fire departments. If the fire marshal catches them cutting corners, he can shut the fire department down.

The turnout gear firefighters wear is so expensive that Levels can only afford 2 new sets a year, and the standards require replacement every 10 years — or sooner, if damaged by fire. They need the best gear on the market, Chief Watson points out, adding “It’s people’s lives.”

Most volunteer fire departments rely on used vehicles — all they can afford. Just the cab of a custom truck costs $100,000, says Chief Watson, and a new 50-foot ladder truck costs $600,000-$750,000.

Even used vehicles are expensive. Capon Springs dedicates their state insurance fund money to truck payments, leaving other expenses to be covered by the levy and fund-raising.

The volunteers save money where they can. Levels saved almost $200,000 over the cost of new vehicles by refurbishing 2 used pick-up trucks, one a brush truck built from a 1998 pick-up updated with a 2013 chassis, and the other their EMS assist vehicle, outfitted to carry their vehicle extrication tool (popularly known as the “jaws of life”).

The trucks are driven a lot — responding to calls of other departments as well as to nearby fires. Firefighting takes a lot of trucks because volunteers are scarce. Some trucks arrive with just the driver, or the driver and one passenger, says Chief Watson.

Gas is a big expense. Fire truck gas mileage is in the single digits. Chief Watson laughs and says “we used to get miles to a gallon, and now it’s gallons to the mile.”

Insurance is costly too — $18,000 a year for Levels plus another $3,000 for workmen’s compensation insurance required by the state. To these expenses, add truck maintenance and servicing, maintaining and heating the fire station, staff training, and annual testing of equipment.

All they ask from the rest of us is to keep the fire levy in place, helping them pay the bills and keep the lights on.

And if the levy fails?

“Taxpayers have to understand what’s going to happen — we’re going to need paid firefighters,” Chief Watson says, though adequate financial support for the volunteers may at least delay this a while.

Still, he believes it is coming — “better be planning on it,” he says.

Lousy mast could mean good hunt

What’s lousy for the wildlife may be good for hunters this fall.

West Virginia’s 2020 mast report — DNR’s chronicle of the state’s edible plants — is showing the worst numbers in its 49-year history.

The lack of food from nuts, berries, leaves and shoots mean the state’s bears, deer and other game are ranging far and wide to eat. That could foretell a big buck season next month.

“It is bad, bad, bad, bad when it comes to soft mast,” DNR’s Chris Ryan, who heads up the mast report, said on WVMetroNews last week. “That has impacted things that have happened in the summertime.”

Soft mast encompasses 9 species from apples to greenbriers that make up the main diet during the summer.

Statewide, all 9 types were off from both last year and from the 49-year average.

In the eastern end of the state that includes Hampshire, blackberries, dogwood and greenbriers were up, but the other 6 were off — some way off, like the 91-percent decline in sassafras.

Hard mast didn’t fare much better. That’s 8 species — mostly acorns from different oaks — that are the typical fall feed for deer, bears, turkeys and squirrels.

“White oak and chestnut oak were bad last year, but hickory, which supports quite a few species is down significantly from last year,” Ryan said. “Squirrels and bears go to the hickory pretty fast because those hickory nuts are very high in carbohydrates and fat. A bear can put on a lot of weight by hitting the hickory flats, but this year it’s going to be real hard for them to find a lot of good hickory.”

Hickory is off 49 percent from the 49-year average in the eastern counties. Red and black oaks, the predominant species here, are flat with the average.

Other findings from the 2020 survey:

• Soft mast (think berries) was well above the 48-year average across the state. In this region grapes and apples led the way.

• White oak was off 74 percent and chestnut 84 percent in the region, which extends from Jefferson to Pendleton County.

• Overall, the report says, the 2020 deer harvest should be higher than last year. Deer survival from 2019 and the number of fawns will fuel the surge.  

• With an increase in bear seasons, DNR predicts a record bear take.

The complete mast survey is available in the hunting section of www.wvdnr.gov.

The survey is traditionally ready by the first of October, based on the August findings. It will be of particular use for the hunting seasons still to come. Bow season for deer and bear started at the end of September. 

Forrest’s fires

‘A wall of flames around 40 feet high was screaming towards me’

Even fewer still are Hampshire County folks who would describe that job as “fun.”

But, then again, there’s only one Forrest Moreland.

Moreland grew up in Augusta and graduated from WVU in December 2019, and he took a gig fighting fires with the Diamond Mountain Hotshot crew this summer in California. 

Moreland explained that his job in California was supposed to start in April, but with COVID-19 kicking off in March, the start date was delayed.

Once he got out there, though, things began heating up, and fast.

“The first 2 weeks are what is called ‘critical 80,’” he explained. “We train, hike and get to know everyone on the crew.”

Moreland described one particular hike, nicknamed “M.O.”, which is 2,000 vertical feet and must be done in less than 60 minutes with a 45-pound pack on, and a tool or chainsaw on their back.

“It’s mentally taxing,” he admitted. “It also helps you grow quickly as a crew.”

After the first 2 weeks of training for 80 hours, Moreland and his team rolled out to New Mexico and Arizona.

Two fires in the Gila National Forest put Moreland and his crew to work, and after a few days of attempting to keep the fires separate, they were called off. In order to keep the blazes from continuing toward structures, they burned off a steep drainage and held it for 2 days.

No sweat, right?

“The days consist of working for 16 hours straight at a minimum,” Moreland said. “I enjoy things that get my heart pumping. Honestly, I was having fun with it. When the fire behavior starts to pick up is when the real fun begins, as long as it isn’t threatening anything or anyone, that is.”

The crew started out with 17 people, and Moreland said as time went on they got to know each other better, “which had a positive correlation with the production of the crew.”

While Moreland’s record shows him cool under pressure, he said it was “the most his heart had pounded all season” when his team was fighting the W5 fire in Lassen County, Calif.

“A fire of (that) size would usually have around 10 crews on it, but we were the only one,” he recalled. “At first, it was easy going. Humidity was high and fire behavior was low. A couple days went by and we had most of the fire secured.”

And then, the wind picked up.

 Moreland recounted that his 5-person squad seemed to have their spot under control, and followed their squad leader to the backside of the spot, watching for flare-ups. He had spread out a bit from the squad, and as he was moving, his squad lead, Owens, from the top of the ridge told him, “Forrest, you need to get down on the dozer path now. Don’t stop until you’re clear.”

“I turned around, and a wall of flames around 40 feet high was screaming towards me,” he described. “The wind had picked up and was now torching everything in the spot. I put my head down and began to run, with the flaming front to my right.”

Moreland said his neck and face were stinging as he tried to shield them with his arm as he sprinted down the path and was clear of the head of the fire.

“I remember thinking, ‘man, that would have been cool to record if I would have had any time before it went down,” he said. “I was more worried about my crew members on top of the ridge, but (Owens) came down the other side and told me everything was fine up there. It was a fun experience for sure.”

That W5 fire would later blow up 7 times the original size due to lack of resources.

“We spent about a month on it, and on the last day contained it,” Moreland said.

Though Moreland’s heat wave of a summer has come to a close, don’t think he’s kicking his feet up. He’s going to be headed back to Morgantown in short order to start drilling with his unit, making sure he’s ready to deploy to the Middle East with the Army National Guard in a few months.

“I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, and doing a lot of recovery workouts before I start to train hard again,” he explained. “(This summer) was just an amazing experience overall, and I’m blessed to have had it.”  

Grady Bradfield: 1931-2020

A man of vision

Ex-commissioner loved to laugh

“He enjoyed campaigning so much because he got to meet people who never would have,” said Martha, his wife of 67 years.

The Yellow Spring stalwart died last Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va., at the age of 89.

“The best way I can think to describe Grady is he enjoyed life,” said longtime friend Steve Slonaker. “He enjoyed his friends and people. He liked to laugh and he liked to talk and tell stories.”

But there was a serious side to him as well.

“He could be just as firm as he was joking,” Slonaker said. “He had a conscience that kind of steered his course.”

That conscience led him to take an early stand advocating for a new hospital in Hampshire County.

“He foresaw that need and laid some groundwork for that,” Slonaker said.

Bradfield served on the County Commission from 1992 to 2004. The new Hampshire Memorial Hospital opened in 2011.

“We’ve got it now and it was needed,” Slonaker said.

Likewise, Bradfield played a part when the county decided to build the nursing home.

“That was good foresight,” Slonaker said, “and it’s paying dividends every day.”

The former government worker turned trucker turned farmer pushed into more than politics.

“He was very community oriented,” Martha said.  He was a member of the Lions Club and the Capon Valley Ruritans. His love of old cars led him to join an antique car club in Winchester. 

In 2011, Grady Bradfield was in the 1st class of the County Commission’s honorees, where his service to the Region 8 Planning Commission and his role on the Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College Foundation board was noted.

“He was a real gentleman,” Jerry Giffin of Capon Bridge said. “We just loved him to death.”

A service for Bradfield will be conducted at a later date. To read his full obituary, turn to page 2A.