Wildfires strain firefighting budgets

GAUTIER, MS (WLOX) - Two massive wildfires in Jackson County in the past two weeks have fire chiefs juggling personnel and reviewing their budgets.

Sunday's 325 acre woods fire in Gautier was the latest blaze that required dozens of firefighters from multiple agencies. Despite the strain on fire department budgets, fire chiefs vow they'll do whatever it takes to ensure public safety.

Overtime pay and fuel costs are the financial strains that come with fighting these wildfires.

City fire departments face the dual challenge of having enough personnel to help fight the wildfires, while maintaining adequate staffing to cover the city with fire

Wildfires that destroyed more than 1100 acres in Jackson County the past two weeks are also consuming a large chunk of the Ocean Springs Fire Department's budget.

"We have to call in extra people because we also, while fighting the fires, we have to maintain coverage for our city. We kind of try and put it in our budget, but sometimes with stuff like that, it does put a hurt on our budget," said Chief Jeffrey Ponson.

Gautier was the lead fire agency in the still-smoldering blaze that ignited on Sunday.

The city sent 17 of its own firefighters to the woods, then called on neighboring agencies to help cover the remainder of the city. That extra personnel, along with resources, add up quickly.

"We use more fuel. Our overtime budget is touched tremendously by it. Each one of those people that came in, besides the nine that are fully staffed, were paid time and a half, so yeah, it affects our budget tremendously," said Gautier deputy fire chief, Charles Thornburg.

Fountainbleu's volunteer fire department is located right between the two large wildfires... and was called out for both.

The fire chief says the first challenge is ensuring there's no loss of regular fire coverage while crews are battling woods fires, often for days at a time.

"We definitely guarantee coverage in our area, when we go assist other departments. We make sure we have reserve units in ready status with people and personnel to man them," said central Jackson County fire chief, Michael Belton.

All the fire chiefs agree, whatever financial challenges or budget strains these wildfires present, public safety takes priority.

"As the city manager told me, whatever we have to do to do the job and serve the public we serve, we're going to do it," said Thornburg.

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