TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation is contributing nearly half a million dollars total to 136 northeast Oklahoma rural fire departments. The tribe’s annual contribution helps support volunteer fire departments, which otherwise rely on fundraisers, membership dues and the help of their community’s residents to maintain their vital operations.

This year due to COVID-19, Cherokee Nation held a virtual ceremony to honor northeast Oklahoma firefighters in lieu of the tribe’s traditional in-person Volunteer Firefighter Appreciation Banquet.

Each of the 136 fire departments is receiving $3,500 to help with equipment, fuel or other items needed to protect live and properties of families throughout the Cherokee Nation reservation area. The funding is set aside in the Cherokee Nation’s annual budget.

“The service provided by these 136 rural fire departments is, in many ways, immeasurable. The brave men and women who serve on these departments often leave their homes and their families in order to help save the lives or properties of people they have never even met,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “We don’t always see first-hand the wonderful acts of courage and sacrifice they make, but we know firefighters are selfless, and their efforts leave a lasting impression on the Cherokee Nation and the communities in which they live. We owe a debt of gratitude to them, and it is an honor to know the Cherokee Nation is continuing to invest in these departments each and every year.”

Spring Valley Fire Department in Cherokee County and Whitehorn Cove Fire Department in Wagoner County were both recognized as this year’s 2021 Volunteer Fire Departments of the Year.

Spring Valley protects residents in a 77-square-mile area and often provides assistance to five neighboring communities as well. The COVID-19 pandemic provided additional risks to the first responders serving the department. Aside from traditional emergency response activities, the department has consistently worked each week with others in their community to hand out food supplies during the pandemic, even delivering meals directly to homes throughout the district.

“Our volunteers are truly dedicated to the service of the department, and they go above and beyond to serve our community,” said Spring Valley Fire Chief Ronnie Smith. “The Cherokee Nation has also helped us out quite a bit with funding during the year. They also help us with providing items like drinking water during times we need to distribute it to the people in our community.”

Whitehorn Cove Fire Department serves approximately 10,000 residents and has worked over the past 10 years to drastically lower insurance premiums for residents and businesses within the fire department’s coverage area. Doing this required the department to focus on improved training, equipment testing, fire hydrant testing, and more. The most recent ratings improvement received in just the past year is expected to save those within the fire district 40 percent in insurance premiums.

“Cherokee Nation has helped tremendously with what they do for the fire departments, the support,” said Whitehorn Cove Fire Chief Jay Stamps. “During COVID, we were having trouble getting supplies and the Cherokee Nation contacted us and asked us what supplies we needed for the safety of our firefighters responding to these calls. I had the stuff the next day.”

The Cherokee Nation also selected five recipients for the 2021 Volunteer Firefighter of the Year awards:

• Craig Moore, Whitehorn Cove Fire Department, for leading with dedication and performance after serving for more than 20 years as a volunteer before becoming assistant chief. Moore is also being recognized for his ability to quickly size up the scene of a fire and make the right decisions that allow the fire to be extinguished, cutting down on the amount of damage to property.

• James O. Miller, Spavinaw Fire Department, for sacrificing immense amounts of time away from his family and hobbies to help maintain the department. Capt. Miller spends countless hours training and makes it a point to go out of his way to help others. He now works as a training coordinator, ensuring new firefighters receive proper guidance as they join the department. Miller is also known for offering comfort and guidance to those who are struggling with difficult calls, and those who work with him know his selfless and courageous acts have saved lives and property.

• Michael Heinser, Spring Valley Fire Department, for his dedication, loyalty, productivity, professionalism and extraordinary actions as a volunteer and leader on the department. Heinser responded to an early morning structure fire during below-freezing temperatures and never wavered in his assistance at the scene, despite it being one of the most challenging responses the department has made. Heinser also remained for several hours afterward to help thaw equipment and hoses and return the department’s equipment to operating status after that call.

• Richard A. Naus, Gooseneck Bend Fire Protection District, for his commitment to his community during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the department’s first-responder call rate more than doubled. Those who work alongside Naus applaud his having nearly double the response rate to calls compared to other firefighters. Naus believes in the role of the department and knows how important it is to serve the community, regardless of the type of call he is responding to or the time of day the call is received.

• Leroy Weddle, Shady Grove Central High Volunteer Fire Department, for his willingness to serve his community and other communities in need. Weddle assisted the Webbers Falls fire department after its fire station burned by taking equipment and a fire truck to Webbers Falls to help protect the community. Those who serve with Weddle, and those who have observed his service, note that Weddle is selfless in his service to the fire department.