Farm Progress

Iowa’s rural fire departments answer the call, operating with all or mostly all volunteers.

Darin Leach

September 15, 2017

6 Min Read
FIRE CHIEF: Tim Mortenson says a majority of the calls for service involve burning vehicles, tractors, combines, or grass and brush fires. These smaller trucks allow for a quicker response and more maneuverability in fields and open areas.

For the past 95 years, the second week in October has been known as National Fire Prevention Week. This year’s official recognition is Oct. 8-14. Over time the educational emphasis placed on learning about fire safety and prevention has turned into an entire month of events and activities. 

Data from the U.S. Fire Administration suggests there is an average of 20,000 agriculture-related fires across the country each year, causing more than $100 million in direct property loss and the deaths of 25 people. More than half of these out-of-control fires involve the burning of brush or grass.

Odds are a volunteer fire department will be called to help put out an agriculture fire in Iowa, as more than 95% of the state’s 730 fire departments operate with either all volunteers, or mostly volunteer staff.

Volunteers serving rural Iowa
A few months ago community leaders in the city of Kamrar, population 199, unveiled a fire truck that will help improve fire protection services in the community and surrounding area. The truck’s purchase was made possible through a $25,000 grant from USDA Rural Development.

“We are very appreciative to get help from USDA for this truck,” says Tim Mortenson, fire chief at Kamrar, and a member of the volunteer department for 41 years. “Many things have changed during my time with the department. We are finding it harder to recruit volunteers and locate replacement equipment, and we’ve even noticed a change in the types of calls we receive.”

Today, a majority of the calls for service involve burning vehicles, tractors, combines, or grass and brush fires. “Our new brush fire truck, with a 300-gallon water tank on a single axle and better maneuverability than our larger truck, will greatly increase our ability to quickly fight grass fires, which can spread quickly and cause significant property damage,” says Mortenson, who is now the only active farmer on Kamrar’s 13-person department.

The new four-wheel drive, four-door crew cab truck replaces a smaller truck that was more than 20 years old, had outdated firefighting equipment and was unreliable. USDA Rural Development’s grant assisted with around 30% of total cost for the truck and required equipment.

Important to have proper equipment
“All of our firefighters are volunteers, and it’s important that they have the proper vehicles and equipment available to them,” says Lori Isvik, Kamrar’s city clerk. “Having access to effective firefighting equipment can be a challenge for a community our size. That is why community support of your local department is so important. The annual soup supper organized by our fire department helps raise funds for future department purchases and is always a very popular event in Kamrar.”

Earlier this year Barnes City, population 173, on the Mahaska and Poweshiek county lines, received a $150,000 USDA loan to assist with purchase of a newer, larger fire truck to replace their 36-year-old pumper truck. The community also received an $11,000 grant for firefighters to receive new personal protection gear.


USDA HELPS: The city of Kamrar recently purchased a brush fire truck, which will increase the fire department’s ability to quickly fight grass fires. A $25,000 USDA grant helped pay for the truck.

The 18-person volunteer department covers a 100-square-mile area, providing services to around 650 people. “Included in our service territory is a 3,000-acre state hunting and fishing reserve that provides challenging terrain for our department,” notes Mike Doonan, fire chief for Barnes City. “It’s important that we are always looking for opportunities to update our vehicles and equipment so we are even more prepared to assist when that next call comes.”

USDA assistance helps Iowa communities
Other rural Iowa communities received assistance from USDA Rural Development this year to help improve their emergency response and fire-fighting services, including:

• City of Floris – $9,700 grant for turnout gear and equipment

• City of Moulton – $16,000 grant for a utility task vehicle (UTV) and equipment to help fight grass fires in remote areas

• City of Woodburn – $ 13,000 grant for equipment

• City of Rhoades – two grants totaling $26,800 to help pay for an emergency medical services (EMS) vehicle and pagers

• City of Clearfield – two grants totaling $46,000 to help pay for a new truck to fight grass fires and fire-protection gear

• City of Burt – $30,000 grant to help pay for emergency-response equipment

• City of Corydon – $28,500 grant to help pay for a new police vehicle

• Lone Rock Fire Protective Services – $15,000 grant for emergency-response equipment

• Chickasaw Township Fire District – $38,200 grant to help with a new building for the fire department

• Searsboro Community Fire/EMS Association – $9,500 grant for firefighting equipment

• City of Lenox – $5,000 grant to help with a new heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system in the fire station

• City of Melvin – $21,400 grant for a monitor and defibrillator

“We are pleased to be assisting with all of these important projects that help ensure the safety of rural Iowans through quality and reliable emergency and fire services,” says Tim Helmbrecht, USDA Rural Development acting state director in Iowa. “Loan and grant programs from USDA Rural Development are designed specifically to assist some of our most rural communities.”

USDA Rural Development loan and grant programs can be used for a wide variety of emergency-services projects such as new ambulances, medical equipment, communications centers, storm-warning systems, police stations, police cars, fire trucks, fire stations, firefighting equipment and community multi-purpose buildings. For more information about USDA Rural Development programs call 515-284-4663, or visit


Fire safety for farms

Follow these important fire-safety planning tips for farms and rural areas:

• Always comply with state or local regulations regarding open burning.

• Do not burn on days with high winds, low relative humidity, or dry and hot conditions.

• Build a fire break around the area being burned.

• All farm buildings, regardless of size, should have a minimum of two easily accessible exits, identify possible evacuation routes and review with family members and employees.

• Remove brush, weeds and tall grass from around buildings to reduce the risk of fire spreading from one building to another.

• Disconnect or unplug electrical equipment and appliances when not in use and use extension cords only on a temporary basis.

• Store hazardous products according to manufacturer’s recommendations.

• Properly store all flammable and combustible materials in labeled containers away from possible ignition sources.

• Provide adequate ventilation in work areas to reduce carbon monoxide or fume buildup.

• Strictly enforce a “no smoking” policy in and around all farm buildings.

• Have at least one multi-purpose fire extinguisher in all farm buildings and mounted on tractors, combines, trucks and other equipment.

• Park farm equipment and machinery in areas that doesn’t restrict traffic flow around a building.

Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.


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