An Oklahoma fire official disputes accusations that a rural firefighter killed at a controlled burn last week was "impaired" as the highway patrol claims.
"When the toxicology report comes back, it will clear him," said Dale Block, one of the state's rural fire defense coordinators. "It angers me that it's out there that he was impaired..."
Funeral services were held Wednesday afternoon for Sarge Creek Fire Chief William Robinson III. He was ejected from and run over by a 6 by 6, a vehicle modified for wildland firefighting. It carried 1,200 gallons of water.
Block said he suspects the highway patrol listed alcohol as a factor because of the unusual nature of the crash. But, added that he's been told by hospital officials and others that the chief was not impaired.
The investigating officer indicated on his report that the operator was "impaired." Phone calls Wednesday to the OHP were not returned.
Robinson, 39, was part of a crew standing by for a controlled burn on a ranch in rural Oklahoma. The landowner had received a special exemption from the governor's office allowing him to burn off his range, said Kurt Atkinson, assistant director of state forestry.
The Sarge Creek Volunteer Fire Department has no building, and only a half dozen or so members. Established about five years ago, it's one of about 475 not-for-profit or Title 18 companies throughout the state, Block explained.
Under the program, the state procures surplus military vehicles for firefighting. "We put the equipment in the area where it's needed. We've got three or four people on 50,000 acre ranches around here... When there's a fire, you have to get to it fast. There's no time to wait... Some we call range departments."
Block said the majority of the Title 18 fire companies have no buildings. "They park under the oak tree or wherever. But, we do have a 80/20 grant program to build metal buildings to keep the trucks out of the elements. Sarge Creek was too new to have a station. You start a fire department. The building comes later."
The coordinator, who personally helped establish 40 departments, said he would put the volunteers up against firefighters from big cities when it comes to battling range wildfires. "With makeshift equipment and a minimal amount of money, they do a yeoman's job."
Block said in the past few months across Oklahoma, more than 700,000 acres has burned and 350 homes have been destroyed. "Without those tiny, little departments, it could well have been one million acres and 1,000 houses."
As Block described how fires are fought in the state's rural areas, his cell phone service was spotty as he drove toward a rural church for Robinson's funeral. "He was a fine, young man with a nice family... This is a close-knit community up here."
"When fire breaks out on a ranch or in tall grass country, everyone available comes to help out. "It's like the old fire brigade... They fight fires together. There's no water. Everyone is on wells."
In his 16 years, Block said he's never seen anything like what he's experienced this year. "We've had a burn ban in effect since Halloween. That's incredible."
The forestry official agreed. "We've had a record-setting winter burn season, and a near-record drought."
Atkinson said rain in the northeastern portion of the state over the past few days has helped. But, much more is needed. Foresters are keeping the governor's office apprised of the situation so determination can be made about the burn ban.
He also said the state depends on the community volunteers to handle firefighting.