The Meade County Firewise Program is a veteran-hire program funded primarily by federal grant dollars through the Bureau of Land Management. It is part of the “Veteran in the Woods” Initiative started in Meade County in December of 2012 with two goals in mind: mitigate the risk of wildland fires in our local communities and- more importantly- assist veterans in reintegrating into civilian life. We achieve the first goal of mitigating the risk of wildland fires through a combination of public outreach and education efforts, as well as sending a crew out to partner with private landowners to physically reduce and clean up hazardous fuels- such as dense or overgrown vegetation and trees- which creates a survivable space around structures. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Meade County Firewise Program treated 86.5 acres of private land in the Black Hills, protecting 32 structures on 20 properties.
However, the second goal is the most important focus we have, and it is where we take the most pride: aiding our veterans. Since 2012, we have employed exclusively veterans in a short-term capacity to train them specifically in wildland fire mitigation techniques as well as giving them much broader employment assistance. The Meade County Commission Office, under which the Firewise Program operates, handles a wide variety of tasks for the county: it houses the Human Resources department for the county, as well as the Veteran Services Officer. The HR department offers veteran participants in the Firewise Program assistance with resume writing, job interviewing skills, and finds them pertinent job shadowing opportunities within the community. The Veteran Services Officer offers assistance with the numerous veteran benefits for which a participant might be eligible through the various state and federal agencies. Meade County uses all resources available to them as a public entity t o aid veteran participants in the program by giving them the tools to be successful.
We measure the true success of the program in lives positively impacted. Many of the veterans that participate in the program have their own struggles in life, ranging from physical, emotional, financial, or sometimes even legal trouble. The structure they had in their military lives is often absent in their civilian lives, and the camaraderie they shared with their brothers- and sisters-in-arms dissipates quickly with time. It can be overwhelming. The Firewise Program gives them a safe landing zone to work their way through those issues. They get to plug into a network of veterans going through the same struggles. To-date, we have had 37 veterans participate in the program. We only count it as a success if the veteran leaves the program with full-time employment or enrollment in secondary education to pursue their desired career path. In FY2017, we have had 8 veterans graduate from the program, and a current crew of 5 veterans are actively working towards a better future for themselves and their families. Past graduates have gone back to school or have been hired into full-time careers in a wide variety of fields; a few actual notable examples include: law enforcement officer, correctional officer, EMT, IT technician, equipment operator, and truck driver.
None of this would be possible without the funding we receive from the BLM. Since 2012, the BLM has made more than $600,000 available to the program through grant dollars. By comparison, the cost share we have received from private landowners through our fuels reduction contracts (they pay 20% of services billed), has totaled nearly $40,000 in the same time frame. The BLM and Meade County are proudly committed to serving those who have served our nation, and keeping our communities and the Black Hills safe and beautiful.