As I drove south out of Belgrade, Serbia with Alexei and Sanel, members of a US Army civil affairs team, they educated me on the history of the former Yugoslavia and how the new borders of Central and Southeast Europe had come to exist. We were on our way to meet with the mayors and emergency response coordinators in some of the southernmost cities in the country. The goal of the trip was to build trust and strengthen relationships between the US and Serbia. As Serbia actively seeks closer ties with the West and accession into the European Union, the US Embassy has recognized their efforts and is working to help them achieve their goals, including improving their emergency response capability. During our conversation with the firefighters on duty, it became evident that there were was one need that was both critical and time sensitive.
On the way to Vranje, the capital of Pčinja district and the southernmost city in Serbia, I learned that the area remained economically depressed and underdeveloped as a result of the war in the 1990s, which drove much of the business out of the district. The lack of tax revenue has led to budget shortfalls and prevented the city from being able to purchase the gear that firefighters need.
The Fire Chief showed us their aging equipment during our tour of the fire station and explained that between March and November, the fire department will respond to 1000+ wildfires. Every year, the fires burn up valuable forests, destroy crops, and threaten homes in the mountainous, hard to reach areas of the district. The men showed me how they had installed 55 gallon barrels in their off-road trucks to be able to get water to these remote areas to fight the fires. They went on to explain that they had even spent their own money, out of their modest salaries, to purchase the backpack bladder systems they currently use. Those systems are now failing, right at the height of fire season. Your support will allow us to provide exactly what is needed for these firefighters to effectively battle the fires that threaten the lives and livelihoods of people in their district. It will also present an amazing opportunity for Spirit of America, alongside US troops and Embassy personnel, to demonstrate the benefits of US/Serbia cooperation.